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A CurtainUp Review
By Jacob Horn
Interestingly enough, both experiments have inspired artistic works, nearly simultaneously, half a century later: Zimbardo's work was dramatized in a 2015 film, while Milgram's experiments have inspired Frank Basloe's Please Continue, the newest play featured in Ensemble Studio Theatre's longstanding collaboration with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to produce works exploring science and technology.
To say that Please Continue is about Milgram's experiments (the procedure for which is described here) requires clarification. The play is inspired by a pilot study conducted before the well-known 1961 experiment, supervised by Milgram (Haskell King) and conducted by a senior thesis student, here named James Sanders (David Edward Jackson). As historical record fades into historicized fantasy, Basloe places Milgram in the background and focuses on how Sanders and his friend Saul (Jonathan Randell Silver), who plays the experiment's confederate "learner," grapple with its troublesome results and complex ethics.
A separate story, based on a 1959 scandal at Yale, depicts the fictional Francis Dunleavy (Jared McGuire) confronting his implication in an incident of "lascivious carriage" and his guilt over his treatment of the fourteen-year-old girl at its center. In conversations with the Reverend William Coffin (Tommy Schrider)—another historical figure whose sermons reference the incident and a student like Francis—and his classmate Mitchell (Dylan Dawson), Francis questions how he could commit actions he knows to be wrong, not unlike Sanders's subjects.
The relationship between the two plots is largely conceptual, save for a point when they meet late in the play, but the very different issues and stakes in the two stories weaken this connection. The ethics of scientific experimentation, as explored in the Sanders plot, are a meaty conundrum that the play ponders deeply and thoughtfully. Basloe compellingly fleshes out the moral ambiguity of the situation, convincing us both of the necessity of Milgram's process and of the problems present therein.
Many plays about science hinge on this question of reconciling scientific progress and moral uncertainty (see, for example, last year's Irreversible and the previous Sloan Project play Informed Consent). A number fall into the trap of creating a protagonist who robotically invokes the name of Science to deflect any ethical criticism. Milgram can come off looking a bit like a mad scientist here, but Jackson's Sanders displays impressive nuance, simultaneously resolute in his pursuit of the experiment and acknowledging his qualms with it.
Meanwhile, there's not the same kind of rewarding moral grappling to be done as we watch Francis consider the sexual violence he has helped to perpetrate on a young girl—that's a black and white issue (though, frankly, the play seems too quick to forgive Francis for his actions—perhaps a comment on how such crimes were treated then, but frustrating nonetheless). Theological questions about redemption are raised, but this starts to overload the play on ideas, risking the Francis plot becoming a distraction rather than an enhancement.
One thing that does unite the two stories is the strength of the ensemble's acting, a hallmark of EST's productions that is certainly apparent here. Featured performers Alex Harrold, who plays a test subject, and Molly Carden, as Francis's fiance, also leave lasting impressions in brief appearances. The play can be a bit slow or repetitive at times, but William Carden's considerate direction yields enough emotional charge to keep you invested throughout.
Jason Simms's set is a particularly nice technical touch, perfectly capturing the spartan, wood-and-metal aesthetic that characterizes so many mid-century college psychology buildings, while the costumes by Suzanne Chesney fully evoke the time and setting of the play.
While the stories of Sanders and Francis sit somewhat uneasily together, Please Continue makes clear Basloe's dramatic and philosophical thoughtfulness, and he asks such thoughtfulness from the viewer as well. Milgram's experiments have acquired many defenders and detractors over time, and while Basloe doesn't come down firmly on either side, he artfully uses the theater as a setting to explore this argument in a way that psychology papers never can.