Theater Review: Lovesong of the Electric Bear

A highly intelligent, half-fantastical trip through the life of Alan Turing, the father of artificial intelligence.

Alan Turing—mathematician, code-breaker, war hero, homosexual, victim of state-sponsored chemical castration, suicide—comes across as a tragic figure in just about any telling. But the English playwright Snoo Wilson has done what students of 20th century history might have considered impossible: turned the life of this visionary, who died by cyanide in 1954 just shy of his 42nd birthday, into an epic celebration.

He does it through an episodic, half-fantastical trip through the stations of Turing's life, guided by the stuffed bear, Porgy. Turing really did have a Porgy Bear. It even has its own Facebook page. But here Porgy comes to life as an antic, touchy jester who speaks with a quasi-Shakespearean flair. The script refers to Turing as a genius, but Porgy, played with unflagging energy and broad humor by Tara Giordano, is the genius (in the original sense) of this tale, the representative spirit who draws Alan, Scrooge-like, through scenes of boyhood, the cruelty of public school, hesitant then confident sexuality, cloak-and-dagger war action, and, of course, his work.

Turing was always inventing or conceiving something. Wilson's Turing, intensely logical, can't see the point in celebrating more than one Christmas (why was the fact that the Earth had revolved around the Sun one more time significant?) and insists there's no difference between a human and an equivalently smart machine. Yet he can cavort at a drag bar in New York and cultivate a friendship—even something of a platonic love affair—with a young female colleague. A realistically complex human? Or a cipher for a playwright's imagination? If there's something missing here, it's that Turing's genius is more referred to than shown. We get mostly a babe-in-the-woods version of him, and just his personal half. Fortunately, Alex Draper is so charming in the role that we quickly grow to love him and hope for the best, even as we know the worst will come.

As for the work, it appears in projections as falling numbers, codes, photos of machines. In one lovely scene the actress Cassidy Boyd (part of the excellent ensemble cast) appears before Alan and his father as if out of the ether, covered in numbers, like an angel from heaven. An opposing vision comes a bit later in the form of a female graduate student (Lilli Stein), grimy from working in the bowels of Turing's giant computer, who emerges to hear the tale of woe—the accusation of "gross indecency"—that will lead to his ruin. The great man, it turns out, has never spoken to her before.

Another issue is that we don't really see what leads to the act which frames the story: Turing's suicide. The death seems just another episode. The fairy-tale style in which it is presented matches the tone of the rest of the play, so it didn't bother me at the time, but on reflection, the fundamental question remains: what was Turing really like? We're asked to take it on faith that he was a socially isolated weirdo, not "comfortable with existence." The Turing we actually get to know here is, with the exception of a scene or two, merely a bit eccentric, and sweet as can be.

It would be wrong, however, to ask the play to be something it doesn't set out to be. It's meant, I think, to be a corrective to the tragic aura that suffuses our awareness of Turing. As such it thoroughly succeeds. Director Cheryl Faraone displays a virtuosic touch with quick changes of scene and the blurring of fantasy and reality, aided by fine sound, lighting, and projection and an extremely economical but thoroughly functional set.

Wilson has a great time making fun of theatrical conventions—Shakespearean bursts of elevated language, comedic slow-motion running, the way Porgy puppet-masters a school bully off the stage when his scene is up. "Read your Hamlet," an old doctor friend advises Turing shortly before his untimely end: his problem is "this mortal coil—existence." But that's the problem we all have. This slick production at Atlantic Stage 2 is a fine place to come and forget about it for a couple of hours.

Lovesong of the Electric Bear played in repertory through Aug. 1. 

Photos by Stan Barouh

Originally published as “Theater Review (NYC): Lovesong of the Electric Bear” on Blogcritics.