Lovesong of the Electric Bear by Snoo Wilson – Off Broadway Theater Review
FURTHER INTO THE LIFE OF ALAN TURING
by Alexander Harrington
published July 24, 2010
Lovesong of the Electric Bear
now playing Off Broadway at Atlantic Stage Two
through August 1
Because it is about Alan Turing (computer science pioneer and one of the British crackers of Germany’s Second World
War code, who committed suicide after having been prosecuted and chemically castrated for his homosexuality), Snoo Wilson’s Lovesong of the Electric Bear, directed by Cheryl Faraone, invites comparison to Breaking the Code, Hugh Whitemore’s play about Turing that became a star vehicle for Derek Jacobi, and
was later adapted for television. Before it is measured against its predecessor,
Lovesong of the Electric Bear deserves to be evaluated in its own right, and it is an
entertaining and compelling play.
Presented as part of the Potomac Theatre
Project’s fourth New York season, Lovesong of the Electric Bear is built on the conceit of having
Turing’s Teddy bear (do the Brits call stuffed bears “Teddy?”) take the scientist on a tour of his life before he kills
himself. This has the potential to be insufferable, and the bear costume includes brown tights
guaranteed to repulse any children who attend the show (though I doubt many parents would take their kids to a play that involves chemical
castration), but surprisingly, the gimmick works (though the friend I attended the play with grew tired of it quickly, I did
not). The bear’s (Porgy Bear, by name) success has a lot to do with Tara Giordano’s
performance – she gamely embraces the potentially cringe-inducing cuteness of the idea, and yet manages to be charming.
Wilson probably intends Turing’s attachment to Porgy to echo his attachment to the computer he constructs, which he
calls Madame. Others, including Porgy, view Madame as inanimate, while Turing sees no
difference between artificial intelligence and human intelligence (the program notes state that Turing never believed that Madame achieved
artificial intelligence – that did not come across to me as an audience member). Porgy
proclaims that Turing’s great sin is loving Madame more than any human being. Wilson may mean for Turing’s inability to distinguish between the animate and the inanimate to be
connected his initial inability to act on his sexual impulses and his later impersonal encounters with hustlers. Wilson does not develop this idea. Indeed, there is much thematic contradiction in the play, and these
contradictions do not create intellectually challenging ambiguity; they merely create confusion. Porgy proclaims Turing’s sin after she makes him pray to the ancient gods of Britain, and a hustler
immediately appears. When Turing loves Madame more than the divinely sent rent boy, Porgy says
the gods will punish him for rejecting their gift. As insight into Turing’s character this
makes no sense, since there is little more intimacy between man and paid prostitute than there is between man and machine. Another contradiction is that earlier in the play, Porgy was disgusted by the possibility of Turing’s
homosexuality. Also, the play includes the fact that shortly before his death, Turing had a
boyfriend. This implies an emotional development beyond inanimate objects and anonymous
sex, and the play does not investigate this.
Despite its thematic flaws, Lovesong of the
Electric Bear is funny. This must be surprising to anyone who has seen with Breaking the Code (I saw the TV adaptation). The earlier play
is a familiar tragedy of a thwarted, lonely, sad homosexual. This was compounded by the fact
that Jacobi (brilliant as he is as Richard II and the Chorus in Henry V) has a melancholy,
vulnerable, and somewhat old ladyish presence – and by the time he shot the play for television, he was over fifteen years older than Turing
was at the time of his death, turning the character into a caricature of a pathetic, old queen.
Another reason Breaking the Code creates this impression of Turing is that it is focused
primarily on his sexuality. It devotes some time to his cryptography and almost none to his
Wilson, Faraone, and actor Alex Draper, who gives an outstanding performance as Turing, present many different
aspects of Turing’s character, not just his sexuality. Turing is manifestly a mathematical
genius; he is a Peter Pan who entertains himself with children’s movies, books, and radio shows, while eschewing serious literature; he’s a
running enthusiast, who, as he runs, picks blades of grass, sucks the vitamin rich juice from them, and spits the pulp onto his shirt; when
the pollen count is high, he uses a military-issue gas mask to protect himself while he’s running. He is a charming eccentric.
Lovesong of the Electric Bear has an advantage over Breaking the Code in that it has been written after computers have revolutionized the world. Whitemore does not seem to have foreseen the direction in which the world was heading, and did not focus
on Turing as one of the father’s of the 21st Century.
The cast, as a whole, is excellent. A particular standout along with
Draper and Giordano is Alex Cranmer as a series of stolid, traditional, English lunkheads.
Faraone, projection designer Ross Bell, and lighting designer Hallie Zieselman effectively employ images of equations and computer
gears. Faraone, Zieselman, and scenic designer Christina Galvez combine an upstage proscenium
arch with curtains that double as a projection screen, strings of lights, and giant adding machine keys to create a carnival-like look that
suits the childish aspect of Turing’s character. Lovesong of the Electric Bear is charming and funny portrait
of a man who helped to shape the world in which we live.
alexanderharrington @ stageandcinema.com
photos by Stan Barouh
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