Infinity: actually 90 (very mixed) minutes

Infinity by Hannah Moscovitch is at The Cultch

Annoyingly, this isn’t a production photo, but it does show you Amy Rutherford and Jonathon Young.
(Photo by Dhalia Katz)

Two of the three characters in Infinity claim that they can hear time. I listened very closely, but I couldn’t hear the play’s heartbeat. Hannah Moscovitch’s script is emotionally alienating and its ambitious themes are underdeveloped. But I enjoyed it — because the character voices are fantastic and, under Ross Manson’s direction, this production is exquisitely tailored.

Moscovitch packs a lot into her 90-minute runtime. In one narrative line, a nerdy young PhD candidate in physics picks up a composer named Carmen, who’s also a grad student, in the kitchen at a party: “I’m Elliot. I came in here. I want to meet you.” In the other plotline, a young woman named Sarah Jean delivers a friend’s verdict: “She said that I’m … uh … fucked up.” Sarah Jean convincingly backs up her friend’s analysis by sharing the details of her romantic and sexual life.

It’s not long before you figure out how these storylines are going to intersect.

But neither is persuasively engaging. Carmen and Elliot are on a seemingly endless loop: he declares his love for her but, obsessed with his thesis, he has no idea how to show it. She complains — then acquiesces. This pattern continues through courtship, pregnancy, marriage, and the raising of a child. As a desperate young mom, Carmen begs Elliot to have lunch with her once a week, as he does with his thesis adviser. He can’t imagine why he would do such a thing.

And Sarah Jean is worse. She has boyfriends, but she is so unable to imagine their emotional realities and so alienated from her own that, metaphorically speaking, she leaves a trail of bloody bodies in her wake. And she gets downright tetchy when she intuits that there are some who might judge her behaviour.

I’m not saying that people like Elliot and Sarah Jean don’t exist. Of course they do. And Moscovitch allows us to see that they want to connect; they just don’t know how to. But she doesn’t reveal enough of their struggle to make them sympathetic and watching them repeat the same patterns over and over again just gets boring.

The thematic pay-off is minor. Off the top, Infinity announces that it’s going to be a play about time. Elliot is attracted to Carmen partly because she is a musician and musicians speak the language of time. And, like Einstein, Elliot believes that time is an illusion; he talks a lot about string theory and other more esoteric physics. But the discussion about time and music goes nowhere — even though violinist Andréa Tyniec plays on and off throughout — and the play’s scientific content is so highfalutin that I couldn’t figure out how it related to the domestic story, which isn’t going anywhere anyway …

Until Elliot encounters mortality. I won’t tell you how that happens exactly, but I will say that, to me, the play is an invitation to presence. But, as a friend commented on opening night, “Be here now” is a slogan you could find on a T-shirt.

Nonetheless … nonetheless I enjoyed Infinity — because it has the best dialogue in the world. Even though the plot rarely surprises, Moscovitch’s audacious, eccentric character voices consistently ambush you.

When Carmen is resisting Elliot at their first meeting, she says that she has just broken up with her fiancé: “I can offer you 15 to 20 minutes of sex followed by 45 minutes of crying.” And Sarah Jean describes how one of her boyfriends reacted when she brutalized him: “He started ripping a hole in my sofa, then he put his head in it and cried.” Lines like that will keep you alert.

And the trio of actors in this production handles the text beautifully. Both Elliot and Sarah Jean feel like they’re pretty far out on the autism spectrum, and there’s innocence as well as a whole lot of deadpan humour in Jonathon Young’s skinlessly straightforward delivery. Amy Rutherford, who plays Carmen, is the straight man in the mix — for want of a less sexist term — but I believed her every step of the way; she actually seems to age as the evening progresses. And, to her enormous credit, Emily Jane King holds her own as Sarah Jean. She’s onstage with two of the foremost actors in the country and, although she’s a relatively recent grad from Studio 58, she demonstrates that she is absolutely in their league, clearly conveying that Sarah Jean’s prickliness has barbs on the inside as well as the outside.

Texturally, there are lovely elements. In one of Carmen’s habitual hand movements, she looks like she’s taking the lid off a jar. Sarah Jean echoes that. And choreographer Kate Alton scores an extended sequence composed entirely of gestures.

I also particularly appreciate Teresa Przybylski’s set: a white wall with fuzzy grey horizontal lines — like a half-remembered musical staff — is angled in a way that messes with perspective, much like Elliot’s perception of time.

The script isn’t perfect but, in this production, it surprised me and it made me think. Those are two things I’m always grateful for.

INFINITY By Hannah Moscovitch. Directed by Ross Manson. A Volcano Theatre production, originally co-produced with Tarragon Theatre. In the Historic Theatre at The Cultch on Wednesday, January 8.  Continues until January 19. Tickets.


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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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