It’s only fitting that American Conservatory Theater should inaugurate the Strand, its new second stage in the city’s tech corridor, with a recent play by the inexhaustibly original British playwright Caryl Churchill — a writer who has embodied innovation far longer than any of today’s reigning Silicon Valley geniuses.
The author of such watershed works as “Top Girls,” “Serious Money,” “Mad Forest,” “A Number” and “Far Away,” Churchill has been not only one of the most radically inventive dramatists of the modern era but also one of the most trenchantly observant.
Since breaking new ground in the late 1970s with “Cloud Nine,” now a contemporary classic of sexual politics, Churchill has been shrewdly distilling the societal forces shaping and warping our lives. Global issues — capitalism run amok, jingoism, totalitarian madness — are discernible in individual actions. Public and private are never worlds apart in her theatrical universe.
It was only a matter of time before Churchill addressed our smartphones. In “Love and Information,” she explores with characteristic insouciance the way an endless stream of data — some of it dazzling, much of it banal — has altered our relationships to one another and to ourselves. (Excuse me for a moment while I check if anyone has “liked” the San Francisco photos I posted on Facebook.)
The play, ingeniously mirroring our minuscule attention spans, consists of 57 scenes grouped into sections. Some are just a few lines of fragmentary dialogue, others are a few pages. The identity of the speakers and the nature of the situations must be surmised from the language.
Age, gender, race, class and sexual orientation — the crude tools with which we have been trained to organize our perceptions of the world — aren’t specified. Neither is the context of the conversations, which begin for the most part in medias res.
This is the first production I’ve seen of the play, which premiered at London’s Royal Court in 2012 and was produced off Broadway last year. But it’s safe to say that each staging will be unique not only in its casting but also in its choice of settings, determination of character relationships and even the order of the scenes. (The playwright permits a degree of fluctuation and has included at the end a “Random” section of action and talk that can be included at any point.)
A.C.T.'s production, directed by Casey Stangl, accentuates the buoyancy of Churchill’s writing at the expense of some of its steely chill. It’s an audience-friendly version of the play that at times comes off as comically ingratiating. (The high jinks begin in the lobby before anyone even knows what’s going on.) But it’s nevertheless an exhilarating ride, spryly performed by a cast of 12 and confidently coordinated with multimedia elements, including film, Twitter and a fair amount of texting between characters.
The sunshiny tone of the staging may be a spillover from the good cheer engendered by this stunningly renovated theater, which was once a silent movie house and later one of the first cinemas in San Francisco to show talkies. After operations ceased in 2003, the building fell into disrepair, becoming a hangout for junkies and a graveyard for pigeons. Now an aspirational venue for playwrights who want their intimacy and their architectural sleekness too, the Strand, a few blocks from Twitter’s new headquarters, provides an enviable counterpoint to the cavernous Geary, A.C.T.'s historic home in Union Square’s thronging shopping and theater district.
Buffeted as they are by screen communication and more news, gossip and trivia than they can digest, the anonymous figures in “Love and Information” are unmistakably our stand-ins. Churchill presents a cross section of contemporary humanity, able to retrieve the most obscure intelligence at a click but benighted about what to do with this burdensome and rather alienating trove.
Children bicker over personal details of their favorite celebrity. A worker furiously complains in person about being fired over email. Several people comment on a wedding video that serves as a substitute for personal recollection. A man unable to sleep complains to his wife that his “head’s too full of stuff” before deciding to get up and go on Facebook.
A scientist describes in gory detail the experiment he’s been running on chickens to map changes in their brains from cruelly enforced learning. Mathematicians argue over the utility of irrational numbers. A doctor tells a patient that 10% of people with the same condition are still alive after three years. One individual informs another that it took the light 2.8 million years to get here.
Churchill, one of the sharpest minds in the theater, is hardly anti-science or anti-intellectual. But she is curious about what this informational freight is doing to us. Haunting the piece is a skulking depressive who keeps turning up in different places without ever finding what she needs. Modern life, with its seemingly endless menu of options, appears to be crushingly lonely.
Memory is a point of contention between characters, knowledge is manipulated for power and reality is increasingly hard to pin down in a world seduced by the virtual. The play, which predates Spike Jonze’s film “Her,” includes a conversation between friends, one of whom has apparently fallen in love with a woman who is a computer game.
A schizophrenic who believes traffic lights are talking to him isn’t the only one on slippery footing. Two other characters engage in a philosophical debate over fate and free will, which leads to the recognition that no one could possibly have all the information to solve the age-old problem.
The theater, from its origins in ancient Greece, has prized insight over information. Churchill, for all her radicalism, upholds this classical tradition. In her wildly playful way, she appears to concur with her dramatic forebears from 21/2 millenniums ago that knowledge must be irradiated by emotion to become wisdom.
Churchill lays bare the frenetic zeitgeist with surgical precision, but she allows mystery and poetry to hold sway. One of the most haunting moments comes near the end when two people are quizzing each other on the most arcane facts.
“Do you love me?” one asks the other after a question concerning the color of a specific type of caterpillar. “Don’t do that,” the other replies before eventually acknowledging, “I do. Yes, I do” — an answer infinitely more meaningful than anything a search engine could supply.