Nothing’s cozy like the cosmos. One would think that such a never-ending freezing expanse would snuff out the flames of life, but more often than not it brings us closer together, huddled in our smallness. Surrounded by light-years of darkness and ice, we rely on the inches between us that touch.
Who said science can’t be romantic? In the eyes of Kyle (Matthew Meixler), our exuberant narrator and resident man-of-the-stars, the act of falling in love demands that we embrace our vulnerability, that we step willingly through a vast open door to the emotional unknown. He’s the perfect catch in many ways — a brilliant physicist and a devoted husband — and the last lover on earth who should be forced up against the horrific crime that abruptly ends the life of his partner, Zoe.
Composed with both artful style and canny restraint by Arizona writer Toni Press-Coffman, Touch is a saddening work of drama. But in a time of shared sorrow, faced with darkness and ice, we find a way to touch again, or die trying.
No Rules latches onto that fervent need to connect and, with some attentive and precise direction from Joshua Morgan, spins a sonic and visual galaxy from the atoms on the page. Entering the H St Playhouse is like stepping into a cool jacuzzi: a dense canopy of dim lightbulbs hang at varying heights, some rather close to our heads, and James Stewart’s original ambient music compositions play from pre-show through the play in gentle, uninvasive ways. We traverse outer space with Kyle — even the floor, in a cute touch, is painted with Milky Way swirls, making it appear that he has more power to escape and explore than he actually does — but this is a softened, suffused corner of outer space. Our journey through the mystery and mourning at the heart of the plot happens not in a frightening void, but in a comforting, shimmering blanket.
Wrapped up tight with Kyle are his friend Bennie (a charming Brandon McCoy, putting his comic chops to work) and the aggrieved Serena (Sarah Strasser, strong and elegant), the sister of Kyle’s late wife. Later on, as Kyle begins to linger with another woman, we get to know Kathleen (Lisa Hodsoll, very funny), who takes a smirking, sharp-tongued command of the story. But it’s Meixler’s performance in the lead that roots this constellation at one bright, focused point. Consistently well-phrased and light on his toes, Meixler deftly navigates the callow cadences of a young, enamored high-schooler and, later in the play, meets the challenges of growing this voice into one of a jaded adult, broken and embittered.
The actors pace quickly through their scenes, sometimes looping around behind the seating sections like lost electrons. Direct address trades smoothly with dialogue and back again, keeping us party to Kyle’s chronicle without breaking the rhythm of the scenes. The lighting feels truly alive, like it’s being DJ’d from the stage manager’s booth, as disparate rows and clusters of bulbs grow bright and dim again when actors trail through them, creating a glowing comet-tail effect. Only at a few haunting moments, such as at the discovery of Zoe’s body, does the moment ice over, and we see how small Kyle and his friends truly are in the face of such a tragedy. Although things always pick back up again, that nagging disquiet gets planted deep and stays with us.
The play’s at least as much a love poem to science as it is to earthly romance. Kyle’s love for it goes back to his high-school physics classes (“You can take it over and over again and the world keeps opening,” he beams) and the dreaming never ceases. He and Zoe get into domestic arguments about the Big Bang. Kathleen finally bonds with him over a satellite photograph of Jupiter. Selena pulls apart the cosmic etymology of the word “lunatic.” At times maybe the language is too florid — we grow to expect, over time, the series of hot-sun and shining-star analogies Kyle makes in describing his love for poor Zoe — but the ensemble commits so smartly that their passion is catching. Together, through the poignant closing scene, they spark a mini-supernova. And for 100 minutes, acts of science and of spirit are anything but separate.
Written by Toni Press-Coffman
Directed by Joshua Morgan
Produced by No Rules Theatre Company
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Running time: 1 hr 40 min with no intermission.
Celia Wren . Washington Post