There’s a welcome mini-Lucas Hnath Festival going here, what with the playwright’s “The Christians” running through March 11 in an excellent San Francisco Playhouse production, and Custom Made Theatre Company’s staging of “Isaac’s Eye,” which has an even more complex and interesting script.
The Isaac of the title (played with a straightforward, nervous intensity by Gabriel A. Ross that feels right for the role) is in fact the 17th-century British scientist Isaac Newton, and his actual eyeball does figure prominently, if gruesomely, in this story, which is a meta-theatrical, fictionalized version of some true (and some not-true) historical events, all rendered in contemporary vernacular.
An “actor” narrates (smoothly performed, although deafeningly loudly in the small space, by Adam Niemann), breaking the fourth wall and guiding the audience through plot by scribbling on a whiteboard everything that happens onstage that’s actually true (whatever is not written on the board didn’t really happen, he explains).
It’s a clever and comical device.
The ambitious, self-confident and almost maniacally focused Isaac, who has made some exciting scientific discoveries, wants to be accepted into the prestigious Royal Society in order to gain the prestige and fame that he believes he deserves.
One possible way in is through his girlfriend, Catherine, who has connections.
Enter the self-satisfied curator of experiments for the Society, one Robert Hooke, who’s appalled to realize that Isaac is in fact working on some of the same experiments as he is.
The rivalry between the two men escalates to absurd proportions.
Meanwhile, neglected girlfriend Catherine wants to get married (to the unromantic Isaac, if he’ll ever get around to proposing) and have a baby.
Mr. Hooke’s journey, as it turns out, is the most interesting in the play — he has the farthest to go — and Robin Gabrielli delivers a convincing and carefully calibrated portrayal.
Only Catherine remains a cipher; she’s underwritten, but also, Jeunée Simon’s complicated performance places the focus, line by line, on seemingly arbitrary choices and actorly mannerisms, not on the character’s objective.
The play, full of surprises, accomplishes what many contemporary plays about history and science fail to do: It makes the characters feel real and immediate (after all, why not bring those iconic figures into a modern context?), and it even makes some of the science comprehensible, at least to this unscientifically minded viewer.
Under director Oren Stevens, the two acts seem to fly by.
Presented by Custom Made Theatre Company
Where: 533 Sutter St., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 9 p.m. Saturdays; closes March 11
Tickets: $25 to $60
Contact: (415) 798-2682, www.custommade.org
Adam NiemannCustom Made Theatre Co.Gabriel A. RossIsaac’s EyeJeunée SimonLucas HnathRobin GabrielliTheater