“When Tang Met Laika,” by Rogelio Martinez and directed by Terrence J. Nolen. Playing in the Space Theater at the DCPA through February 27.
This is one of two plays commissioned by the Denver Center and scheduled for world premieres during its upcoming New Play Summit. Martinez’ script is a big, sprawling, thought provoking and ultimately puzzling portrait of the American and Russian space programs. The set cleverly simulates the slowly revolving innards of first, the Soviet and then the International Space stations. You can’t leave the theater without marveling at the courage, curiosity and technical prowess embodied in humanity’s leap into space — an achievement in which we can all share the thrill of discovery.
But Martinez chooses to note these aspirational qualities of our space programs more in passing than as an object of dramatic focus. He seems preoccupied with the all too human emotional dynamics buffeting both the handful of astronauts who have traveled off our planet as well as their political sponsors. Patrick, played with an enigmatic intensity by Ian Merrill Peakes, is an American astronaut who finds he has more in common with the Russian Cosmonaut, Elena, played convincingly by Jessica Love, than he does with his own wife, Samantha, who is dutifully raising their two sons down in Houston.
In order to establish the historical record for younger audiences, Martinez offers cameos with Olympic hockey players from the 1980 American victory over the Soviet Union. And, the ghost of Yuri Gagarin, clutching the dog Laika, together with the American commander of the ill-fated shuttle, Columbia, William McCool, make tutorial appearances. A Young Communist and Young Capitalist engage in periodic cold war debates designed to inform our understanding of the socio-political realities of the past half-century.
You get the idea. There is a lot going on here. We have Elena’s flashbacks to her Russian childhood and conversations with her father, also an early member of the Soviet space program. Samantha reminisces about her courtship with Patrick. Patrick seals the Columbia crew into their shuttle before it departs the space station. In moments of contrived reflection we learn there is a difference between those who have been off planet and those who haven’t. Those who have wax rhapsodic about their appreciation for the unity of life and their love for our planet. Those who are left behind are preoccupied with more mundane concerns.
I couldn’t help wondering whether the American astronaut who recently drove 900 miles non-stop wearing a space diaper as part of her plan to kidnap a romantic rival would earn a mention, but I was left disappointed. Martinez would like us to believe our astronauts have been ennobled by their experience — that space exploration initiates them into a priesthood that shares a secret knowledge beyond the ken of we mere mortals. Perhaps, but I remain unconvinced. Patrick strikes me as your ‘garden variety’ narcissist, just with more guts than brains. Conquistadors generally make poor saints.
Martinez pulls his threads together with a closing scene at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where Elena, who is now teaching at an American university in Texas must decide whether she loves Patrick enough to embrace his promise of a divorce followed by a life of connubial bliss. All this takes place during the centennial celebration of the first manned flight by Wilbur and Orville Wright, who, naturally, make a brief appearance. There is something a little overwrought about “When Tang Met Laika.” At nearly three hours, it’s nothing 30 minutes of script surgery couldn’t cure.
Miller Hudson has contributed periodic Theater reviews to The Statesman for nearly 30 years.