Sympathetic Magic, Finborough Theatre London
There seems to be an abnormally high incidence of astrophysicists in our drama just lately. You can hardly move for chaps who want to discover the unified Theory of Everything. An astrophysicist was the protagonist of Yasmina Reza's recent comedy Life x 3; another was the Cotswolds Hamlet in Charlotte Jones's Humble Boy, where the hero's attempts to resolve the tension between relativity theory and quantum mechanics mirrored, somewhat contrivedly, his need to reintegrate his personality. Too often, with drama of this sort, you are left feeling that the science has been skimped and the metaphor strained to give a rather bogus sense of the play's imaginative scale.
Now, in William Galinsky's engagingly acted production, we have the British premiere of Lanford Wilson's Obie-award winning 1997 play Sympathetic Magic, a piece which illustrates most of the sub-genre's pitfalls. Set in and around San Francisco, it focuses on "Andy" Anderson (Oliver Senton) a brilliant, sexy, and conceited young astrophysicist who is living with Barbara (Rebecca Lenkiewicz), a sculptor on the brink of art-world stardom. Two miracles coincide in Andy's life. There's the everyday wonder of conception when Barbara realises she is pregnant. Then there's the stupendous fact that Andy stumbles on a discovery at the edge of the universe which seems to call into question all the laws of physics. He should be one helluva happy guy. The trouble is that Barbara does not want the baby.
The stage looks set for an intriguing exploration of the origins of life and of Life and of different conflicting kinds of creativity. But the play, whose overlapping scenes are deftly negotiated here on the split-level composite set, is more like the pilot for a highbrow soap than a drama of genuine intellectual investigation.
The cast includes Barbara's tough anthropologist mother Elizabeth (Jackie Everett), her gay half-brother (Toby Gaffney) who is an Episcopalian priest, and his ex-lover Pauly (Daniel Goode), whose Queer Choir has been decimated by Aids.
Proferring an account of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and a restaurant demonstration with plates of how our local galaxy group operates, the play never convinces you that its conceits arise naturally from its characters. Rather, the characters are constructs designed to accommodate the conceits. Thus, the anthropologist mother has worked in Zaire, so as to permit the irony that she, too, is dying of Aids, and she gives up working with black street gangs so that she can trot out the Heisenbergian explanation that "I don't know if it was working. I don't know if you can observe a group without affecting their behaviour."
If you compare that superficial use of the Uncertainty Principle to the profound meditation on the mysteries of human motivation that is achieved in Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, you'll have some measure of the relative shallowness of Sympathetic Magic. The title comes from Frazer's Golden Bough, indicating a superstititous ritual, like a dance that pretends it's raining in the hope of causing rain. Maybe, the anthropologist moots, the whole of life is to Life what that dance is to the hoped-for deluge. You may end up feeling that this rather neatly sums up the relationship between Sympathetic Magic and genuine intellectual drama.
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