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Beate Hein Bennett;

What to do with my LIFE?
“Ludwig and Bertie”

Sept. 26 – Oct. 13, 2019
Theater for the New City (Johnson Theater) 155 First Avenue (at East 10th Street)
Presented by Theater for the New City, Crystal Field, Exec. Dir.
Thurs—Sat at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm
$15 general admission; Box Office (212) 254-1109, www.theaterforthenewcity.net
Reviewed by Beate Hein Bennett October 6, 2019

Stan Buturla, Connor Bond. Photo by Anthony Paul-Cavaretta.

Who does not want to know what to do with one’s LIFE? It’s an existential question faced by most people at some point in their trajectory, no matter if most of life is ahead or little may be left. It’s also one of the most basic questions in philosophy and ethics. And often it is at the heart of dramatic conflicts, whether generational or spiritual. How to translate this dilemma into effective theatre is another challenge, especially if two philosophers of the stature of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) and Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) are involved. Both are considered major 20th century philosophers; their relationship, from their first meeting in Cambridge in 1911 until Wittgenstein’s death in 1951, underwent the human and intellectual turbulence usually encountered between father and son.

Haytden Bercy as Young Ludwig. Photo by Anthony Paul-Cavaretta.

While the older Lord Russell was an established professor of philosophy and mathematics at Cambridge University’s Trinity College with a long life and some eccentric “side trips,” Ludwig Wittgenstein’s life, abbreviated by cancer, was marked by intellectual brilliance, quixotic solipsism, and social upheaval. The juxtaposition of these contradictory personalities promises explosive drama, perhaps more than can be contained in one session of theater.

Playwright Douglas Lackey, together with his collaborator, director Alexander Harrington took on the challenge of writing and staging a play that covers the forty years of this intellectually adversarial and emotionally taxing relationship. Forty years of extreme 20th century turmoil affected their lives throughout two world wars on opposite sides—Bertrand Russell was a pacifist who went to prison for his conviction during WWI while Ludwig Wittgenstein fought as a soldier with distinction on the Austrian side. Russell, belonging to British gentry, enjoyed life to the fullest and as an agnostic mocked all religion; Wittgenstein, belonging to one of the richest families in Europe—the Wittgensteins were assimilated Jews and Christianized since the early 19th century--ultimately identified with being a Jew (as racially defined by the Nazis) and gave away his part of the inheritance and lived a tortured life as a gay man, intensely religious, and demolishing all logical evidence of factual reality as a basis of philosophy. Russell endorsed the findings of science as a basis for explaining reality while Wittgenstein viewed scientific explanations as simply another grammar or language game.

Stan Buturla, Connor Bond. Photo by Anthony Paul-Cavaretta.

All these adversarial tensions are included in the play through short scenes in rapid succession through historical space and time. Structurally the play focuses on Wittgenstein’s trajectory, thus emphasizing his fragmentary and disjointed life while Russell, though given equal presence, serves as a dialectical counterpoint.

The play’s casual title seems to have inspired the director and the set designer towards a certain impromptu aesthetic. Jon DeGaetano devised a set of tall white peripheral walls with numerous tall black/brown doorways—a shade of Viennese art deco—with six movable slate blackboards of various sizes—perhaps to emphasize the dominant pedagogical environment – that serve as means to enclose space in various configurations and as surfaces for projections and simple tutorial chalk sketches. The actors rapidly move all the blackboards and furniture pieces between the scenes in strict choreography. Interesting idea but creating a lot of distracting noise that interrupts any possibility for the audience to absorb the previous dialogue; limiting the number and movement of these scenic elements would help to keep the focus on the dialogue, the characters, and idea development.

Connor Bond and Daniel Yaiullo as Witttgenstein and David Pincent on sailboat. Photo by Anthony Paul-Cavaretta.

However, the actors are to be commended for their generous energy and discipline with which they switch from being set shifters to being characters. Alexander Bartenieff’s subtle lighting design helps to sharpen the attention while the costume design by Anthony Paul-Cavaretta beautifully adds to the personality of a character as well as the shifts of period style in the play.

While the ensemble of seven actors handles expertly twenty-five roles, playing in the course of the two hour play as many as three to eight roles (plus being set shifters), I would like to pay attention first to the two actors who play the titular parts: Stan Buturla plays a serene Bertrand Lord Russell, elegant, witty, and generous as a mentor and fatherly friend to Ludwig Wittgenstein who storms into his life, played by Connor Bond as a deadly serious man, intensely tormented and wavering on the edge of suicide or madness. The actors maintain the sharp personality contrasts and manage the dialogue alternating between rather complicated philosophical theorems (in merciful snippets) and private conundrums with persuasive clarity.

Pat Dwyer, Alyssa Simon, Connor Bond. Photo by Anthony Paul-Cavaretta.

The only female figures in this very male world are Lady Ottoline Morell, Russell’s mistress of many years, and Gretl Wittgenstein, Ludwig’s sister for whom he builds a modern House Wittgenstein. Both women are beautifully played by Alyssa Simon with distinct personalities—Morell with luscious langeur and Gretl with brisk practical sense. Ms. Simon also plays academic Member 3 of the Moral Science Club at Cambridge University, an institution where Bertrand Russell and at some point Wittgenstein present their respective ideas. (Alyssa Simon also played a very good Hannah Arendt in the Lackey/Harrington TNC production about the infamous relationship between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger.) G.E. Moore, the Cambridge philosopher and colleague as well as confidant of Russell, was played with acerbic humor and British propriety by Pat Dwyer—Moore provided Russell (and the audience) with a bit of intellectual relaxation between the high pitched Russell/Wittgenstein exchanges.

Left: Connor Bond and Hayden Bercy. Photo by Anthony Paul-Cavaretta.

Daniel Yaiullo played five diverse roles, most notably the tragic figure of young David Pinsent with whom Wittgenstein was in love—a scene of both sailing off the coast of Norway was a lyrical interlude. Michael Bradley capably performed eight different roles—a marathon of differentiation. Hayden Bercy appears first in the Prologue as the boy Ludwig Wittgenstein explaining the members of his family in a photograph taken in the Palais Wittgenstein in 1895; later he also plays a school boy in the village school where Wittgenstein taught—he is severely slapped by him when he does not answer correctly. The young actor, a teenager, also performs his roles with distinction.

A difficult theatrical proposition, the play encapsulates the trauma of the 20th century and as such is of definite interest. As we are in the second decade of the 21st century and in a period where facts and opinion become confounded, and the concept of reality is confused with manufactured simulacra, where actual historical facts are denied by twists of language, the figures of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell could be seen as paradigmatic figures in the slippery search for palpable truth.

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