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‘Two Minds’ glimpses at complex psychologists

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Brian Herndon, left, and Jackson Davis play noted Israeli scholars in “Two Minds.” (Courtesy David Allen)

The brain teasers come fast and furious in local playwright Lynne Kaufman’s world premiere “Two Minds,” a short two-hander at The Marsh based on writings by and about two Israeli psychologists: 2002 Nobel Prize winner (in economics) Daniel Kahneman (now 84) and his team-mate, Amos Tversky (who died in 1996).

Their late-20th-century research led to groundbreaking realizations about experience, perception and how humans make judgments and decisions. Are people rational beings, or intuition based?

The two collaborated over many years and at various universities, including Stanford and UC Berkeley, and had a deep, mind-melding connection and a sometimes fraught relationship.

In “Two Minds,” the pair madly scribble their provocative ideas on a blackboard, argue, laugh in triumph, all in a nonstop intellectual fervor.

From the very beginning, Kaufman makes it clear that the two minds may be as one, but their personalities are different, and director Robert Kelley’s production makes that difference visceral.

Kahneman is a bit of a dark horse, as it turns out.

Beautifully played by Jackson Davis, he’s tall, thin, slightly stooped, slow, bespectacled, mild-mannered (until he’s roused to rage), a somewhat morose figure.

He observes that each individual is wired to achieve a set point of happiness, no more than that; he clearly has a low set point.

Tversky accuses him of being a pessimist, but they agree that at least, that way, he’s never disappointed.

Yet Kahneman longs to infuse their work with poetry, with emotion.

Meanwhile, Brian Herndon’s more optimistic Tversky is shorter, stockier and altogether more robust, brash, intense. He’s also loud — actually, as portrayed by Herndon, he is too loud for the Marsh’s small space and his acting is at times too broad, artificially hearty.

As their thoughts and theories race on, conflict is inevitable, of the scholarly sort and of the human sort as well.

There’s professional jealousy, and a divergence of opinion in their conclusions, all leading to a threat to their productive partnership.

But despite the two intriguing figures, and lots of food for thought, the play zips by in bite-sized chunks, a theory here, a quarrel there; significant events are not developed, and the play is over before you know it.

In trying to capture too much real-life story in too little time, Kaufman provides a tantalizing glimpse of complex ideas and potentially multi-dimensional characters — but a deeper, more focused approach is what this rich material needs.

Two Minds
Where: Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays, 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, 5:30 p.m. Sundays; closes June 9
Tickets: $20 to $100
Contact: (415) 282-3055, www.themarsh.org

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