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Secret Life of Humans

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - June 7, 2018


Richard Delaney and Olivia Hirst
Photo by David Monteith-Hodge

What does it mean to be human? That literally is the question posed in the thoroughly compelling production of Secret Life of Humans, playwright David Byrne's provocative entry in the Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters. It is a story that posits that while we have assuredly progressed a great deal since the dawn of time, we have not evolved nearly so much as we might suppose from when our ancient ancestors walked the earth.

Part anthropology seminar, part detective story, the 90-minute play begins in a lecture hall, where we are sitting in on a presentation by Ava (Stella Taylor), our guide through the evening. She begins by asking us to engage in a small experiment aimed at demonstrating that we still carry "vestigial traits" borne in our genetic makeup through the millennia, even though many serve no useful purpose to us in this day and age. "In our minds," she says, "we are these complex, rich, intellectual beings, full of nuance." Ah, but are we really? Or are there unbreakable bonds that condemn us to repeating an endless cycle of antagonism and violence, a carryover from the "survival of the fittest" tactics of our progenitors?

Ava's analysis will need to percolate for a while, as she steps out of her instructor's role and begins to tell us about a blind date she was on with one Jamie Bronowski (Andrew Strafford-Baker). The date turns out to be pleasant enough. Jamie is genial and good looking, and Ava is happy to enjoy dinner and a sexual interlude with him. That's all she wants, really, until she learns that his grandfather, in whose house he is living, is the late mathematician and science historian Jacob Bronowski (Richard Delaney).

While Ava and Jamie are fictitious characters, Jacob Bronowski is not. He was well-known in his field, best remembered for a book and BBC television series from the early 1970s, titled "The Ascent of Man." In it, he argued that the evolutionary pattern for humans is one of continuous growth and development, especially as informed by the sciences. Yet the older Bronowski had his secrets, some of which are contained in a locked room in the house. Ava sees the uncovering of these secrets as the key to supercharging her career, especially as her program at the university is about to be dismantled and she will be jobless.

The play comfortably jumps through time, bringing Jacob, his wife Rita (Olivia Hirst), and his work partner George (Andy McLeod) to life alongside the contemporary story of Ava and Jamie, as well as some sojourns into the early days of homo sapiens. The acting is first-rate all around, under the joint direction of the playwright and Kate Stanley, and the staging is enhanced by a marvelous blend of mobile set design, projections, and some unexpected visual and physical twists that keep mind, eyes, and ears fully engaged. Whether you share Jacob's optimistic view of human potential or Ava's wary and jaundiced one, you will find a lot to mull over about the ongoing saga of what is either the slow ascent or the ultimate descent of humanity.


Secret Life of Humans
Through July 1
59E59 Theater A, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral


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