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Secret Life of Humans

" The biggest challenge we face is that fools and fanatics, who pretend to know, always sound so certain. Whereas the most human among us, who are unsure, who question, who are fallible, are consumed by doubt."

Secret Life of Humans
Richard Delaney and Olivia Hirst (Photo: David Monteith Hodge)
Before David Attenborough brought nature to life on the BBC, there was Jacob Bronowski. A mathematician by training, Bronowski (who went by Bruno) became interested in human evolution and biology later in his career and would eventually go on to present a landmark TV series entitled The Ascent of Man.

Bruno's interest in biology did not result from the pursuit of mainstream fame, but was the byproduct of war. After two World Wars and the Holocaust—in which Bruno, along with many members of the scientific community, lost loved ones—many started to ask how, philosophically as well as biologically, mankind could perpetuate such horrors upon its own. Where moral philosophy failed, could there be a physical way to understand how the horrors of the last few decades had come to pass?

Bruno was hardly innocent himself. He had worked tirelessly during WWII for the British Ministry of Home Security. The mathematical applications that he pioneered for bombing strategies helped make the Royal Air Force's air strikes as destructive as possible.

David Byrne's Secret Life of Humans, which comes to 59E59 as part of this year's Brits Off-Broadway, offers a fictionalized portrait of Bruno (played here by a wistful Richard Delaney): the conundrums he faced, the decisions he made, and the contradictions bound up in his legacy.

But Bruno is only half the story in this telling, which also draws inspiration from modern theory, including Yuval Harari's 2011 book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. He appears in flashbacks, of sorts, interwoven into a university lecture being given by Ava (Stella Taylor). Long a distant admirer and critic of Bruno's, Ava is thrust into direct contact with him when she winds up on a date with his grandson Jamie (Andrew Strafford-Baker). The two find their way into a room he left locked and alarmed at the time of his death, where they begin to piece together his involvement with the war effort.

Through his papers, they come to understand the grim work in which Bruno participated and the secrets he kept from his wife Rita (Olivia Hirst). We also see how Bruno's path diverged from that of his close collaborator George (Andy McLeod). Meanwhile, everything they learn has ramifications for Ava and Jamie themselves.

Devised by its company and co-directed by Byrne and Kate Stanley, Secret Life of Humans is sprawling in its multigenerational scope, non-linear timeline, and intellectual aspiration. Thoughtfully acted and rigorously written, the play is situated at the intersection of science and philosophy.

Making use of expansive projection, sound, and lighting designs (by Zakk Hein, Yaiza Varona, and Catherine Webb, respectively), the play is characterized by a quickly shifting, sensory experience. A relatively simple set design by Jen McGinley allows for swift, and sometimes even surprising, scene changes, while aerial design by John Maddox adds visual oomph.

The play's design and pacing feel vaguely of a piece with another recent work of science theater, 2015's Informed Consent at Primary Stages. Both are staged as thrillers, with the goal of creating suspense and emphasizing just how high their respective stakes are.

That high stakes atmosphere can threaten to consume Byrne's work, when characters speak in dialogue that seems to have been crafted to be as weighty as possible. But the intensely thoughtful writing has high points, to be sure—including a short monologue on love memorably delivered by Hirst—and the ensemble members are reliably skillful in presenting even the denser speeches so that the meaning and feeling aren't lost among the words.

Ava and Jamie are written more naturalistically than the historical characters. Strafford-Baker fills Jamie with a charming innocence and authenticity, while Taylor plays with the different presentational modes of her character: social presentation, as when she's on her date with Jamie; professional presentation, as she gives her lecture; and a narrator persona that seems to extend even outside the play.

Bruno is linked with Ava through their shared identities as presenters. Further, the play spends time questioning how far both characters are wiling to go for their careers. This suggestion of some similarity is what gives meaning to Ava's role as a narrator, but any equivalence doesn't hold up to their sharply varying circumstances. This drives some distance between the play's two timelines.

What does tie them together is a constant questioning of what it means to be human, and on this front Byrne and company offer satisfying food for thought. Is humanity marked by progress, and can this supposed progress turn us towards our own demise? Bruno's WWII context provides the starkest frame for these questions, but they remain more relevant than ever today. Scientific progress may have made men into gods, but sooner or later, we must reckon with the limitations that come with being only human.

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Secret Life of Humans
by David Byrne
Directed by David Byrne and Kate Stanley

Devised by the company: Richard Delaney (Jacob Bronowski), Olivia Hirst (Rita Bronowski), Andy McLeod (George), Andrew Strafford-Baker (Jamie), and Stella Taylor (Ava)
Dramaturg: Kate Bassett
Costume Designer: Ronnie Dorsey
Projection Designer: Zakk Hein
NYC Production Support: Lucy Jackson
Production Assistant: Alex Lui
Aerial Designer: John Maddox
Producing Stage Manager: Helen Matravers
AEA Stage Manager: Raynelle Wright
Set Designer: Jen McGinley
Technician: Penny Rischmiller
Assistant Director: Ellie Simpson
Composer and Sound Designer: Yaiza Varona
Executive Producer: Sophie Wallis
Lighting Designer: Catherine Webb
Running Time: 1 hour and 25 minutes with no intermission
Presented by New Diorama Theater in co-production with Greenwich Theatre at 59E59 Theatres, Theater A, 59 East 59th Street (between Madison and Park Avenues)
Tickets: $25–$70, or (212) 279-4200
From 5/31/2018; opened 6/7/2018; closing 7/1/2018
Performance times: Tuesdays–Fridays at 7 pm; Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm and 7 pm
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 6/6/2018 performance

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