Brian Lee Huynh and Graydon Peter Yosowitz star in Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen's The Light Years, directed by Oliver Butler, for the Debate Society at Playwrights Horizons.
Brian Lee Huynh and Graydon Peter Yosowitz star in Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen's The Light Years, directed by Oliver Butler, for the Debate Society at Playwrights Horizons.
(© Joan Marcus)

Sparks fly in The Light Years, the Debate Society's latest creation at Playwrights Horizons. That's not a phrase one would normally apply to a play like this one, a gentle meditation on dreams and disappointment, but electricity crackles throughout — and not just from the special effects blooming out of Laura Jellineck's elaborate funhouse of a set.

Jellineck has her work cut out for her. The Light Years is based on the true story of theatrical impresario Steele MacKaye and his most ambitious project: the Chicago Spectatorium. At over 10,000 seats, it was designed to be the largest theater on earth. Its inaugural production would be The World Finder, a spectacular re-creation of Christopher Columbus' discovery of America to be presented as part of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (dubbed the "Columbian Exposition" to commemorate 400 years since the explorer's voyage). It would feature an onstage pool of water large enough to sail replicas of the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria into the theater. Relatively speaking, Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark had nothing on The World Finder.

As you might have guessed, none of it ever came to pass. Financing for the Spectatorium dried up after the Panic of 1893 and the half-constructed building was eventually sold for scrap. The Debate Society (which comprises writers Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, and director Oliver Butler) begins the story in more optimistic times, when it all seemed wonderfully possible.

Erik Lochtefeld plays Hillary in The Light Years at Playwrights Horizons.
Erik Lochtefeld plays Hillary in The Light Years at Playwrights Horizons.
(© Joan Marcus)

Hillary (Erik Lochtefeld) is an electrician working on the Spectatorium with his assistant, Hong Sling (Brian Lee Huynh). Mr. MacKaye (Rocco Sisto, looking eerily like the actual man) has charged him with wiring one of the theater's centerpieces: a full moon fashioned out of electric lights. With the help of his beloved wife, Adeline (Aya Cash), he takes this "moon cart" home to keep working after hours.

These scenes from 1893 are interspersed with a new plot line set in 1933, during the next Chicago World's Fair. Composer Lou (Ken Barnett), his wife, Ruth (also played by Cash), and their son Charlie (Graydon Peter Yosowitz) have moved into the house formerly occupied by Hillary and Adeline. Lou hopes to compose jingles for the fair, while Charlie eagerly awaits the arrival of the Graf Zeppelin, a German Airship that promises to carry his postcard to the South Pole.

All the actors wear their character's dreams on their sleeves, with the exception of Huynh, who remains far more guarded (perhaps unsurprisingly, his character's arc comes closest to the fabled American dream). Lochtefeld and Cash exhibit the rich chemistry of a married couple whose love has aged to be even more potent after many years. We can tell that Hillary likes his work, but he loves his wife. Playing a legendary man of the theater, Sisto explodes with extravagant vitality. Like Columbus before him, MacKaye is driven by the irrepressible urge to chart new territory. Costume designer Michael Krass pointedly outfits him as a Genoan seafarer for a dinner scene at the home of Hillary and Adelaide, a seemingly ridiculous choice until one considers David Belasco's penchant for dressing up like a clergyman.

As they did so artfully in their haunting play Jacuzzi, the Debate Society finds its entry into this story through physical space, specifically the home occupied by both families during two world's fairs. In Butler's lavish yet restrained staging, the house becomes like an eighth character, brimming with its own secrets.

Rocco Sisto plays Steele MacKaye in The Light Years at Playwrights Horizons.
Rocco Sisto plays Steele MacKaye in The Light Years at Playwrights Horizons.
(© Joan Marcus)

Butler displays an impressive command of time, speeding the narrative up and slowing it down so this decade-hopping story comes together seamlessly. He keeps the eras straight through a "silent unfolding announcer" mounted stage right (this scrolling title box is one of MacKaye's many inventions). Krass' subtle appreciation for collars and silhouettes also brings clarity to this multi-period piece. During transitions, electric lights around the proscenium illuminate as an authoritative baritone narrates about Columbus and the stars. These passages instantly transport us to the planetarium, the theatrical dwarf star left in the wake of the Spectatorium supernova.

Unfortunately, these moments come with a side effect of the planetarium experience: drowsiness. Lee Kinney's rain sound effect is strikingly real, making us feel protected from the storm onstage. Russell H. Champa's dreamlike lighting gives off a warm incandescent glow. With the addition of Daniel Kluger's lush, contemplative underscoring, it lulls us into a beautiful trance. Still, even though it drags in sections, it is impossible not to admire the sheer audacity of building a play (the Debate Society's most ambitious to date) around the necessity of failure in the creative process.

Aya Cash plays Ruth, and Ken Barnett plays Lou in The Light Years at Playwrights Horizons.
Aya Cash plays Ruth, and Ken Barnett plays Lou in The Light Years at Playwrights Horizons.
(© Joan Marcus)

The inclusion of Antonín Dvořák's New World Symphony during the curtain call poignantly encapsulates one takeaway from The Light Years: Dvořák wrote the incidental music for The World Finder, but when it became clear that the production was never to be, he repurposed his work into the New World Symphony, his most enduring composition. The seeds of our greatest triumphs are often found in the ashes of our most crushing defeats.