Lovesong of the Electric Bear


“Einstein says imagination is more important than ability.”

At forty, dismissed, persecuted, and administered hefty doses of hormones “sentenced to chemical castration” rather than be jailed, Alan Turing committed suicide by cyanide. He had been one of the great mathematicians, the WWII code-breaker who saw to the sinking of the Bismarck, and arguably the father of computer science. He had also been a homosexual at a time and in a place (England) where this was against the law. In September 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an unequivocal apology to Turing on behalf of The British Government.

Alan Turing (Alex Draper) is raised from his deathbed by Porgy (Tara Giordano), his lifelong confidante and companion who is a stuffed teddy bear…so that he may relive his life, perhaps choosing not to take it…and so that we may bear witness. Porgy is simply wonderful- a guide, conscience, Greek Chorus, foil, baiter, and protector. Only when he espouses complicated theoretical theorems does he lose us. It’s an acting tour de force.

Our hero (and he was just that), was something of a bumbler. He had a stutter and none of the social graces that might compensate for it. His parents assumed him inadequate, his school mates tortured him for what they knew him to be. He took up running in order to excel in the only sport he could abide, notably one without teams.

Sensing he’s one of them, young Turing’s proctor delivered the rote national warning: “Far from being manly, masturbation produces thoroughly undesirable effeminate characteristics. Masturbate, and you might end up an irreversible homosexual.” Horrors.

Making it out of public school by the skin of his teeth, however, he excelled at King’s College Cambridge, Princeton and Manchester Universities.

Wilson’s dramatization of Turing’s interaction with a female, a set-up, at his parent’s home, is awkward, poignant and well played. He’s depicted as kind and hopeful. It was, I think, unnecessary to make the woman “a being newly risen from the eternal.” And her communication with Porgy would’ve improved with more of the kind of straightforward talk exemplified by “at which end of the ballroom does your Master really dance?” Joan then becomes an associate at the cryptography center. It’s unclear whether the two women were meant to be one human being.

The rest of Turing’s private life was very private. Made to feel guilty and aberrant, any relationship was clandestine and fraught. The playwright uses his being loaned to The Bell Laboratory in New York during the war as an opportunity to discover what was on the other side of his sexuality. A scene at a gay-transvestite bar meant to show Turing’s oppositional attraction, curiosity and fear was diminished by the insertion of a long musical drag number about Herbert Hoover. Dialogue might’ve been more affecting. Later, brief exchanges with a local rent boy (who turns on him) shows profound pathos.

As the story of Alan Turing’s life, this is a balanced piece, not a polemic. We get a real sense of the man and his arc. From the perennially ink-stained pocket where fountain pens have leaked to the early experiment of dropping stones down the funnel of a moving locomotive…from his arriving late to a tutorial still in his grass-stained running clothes (“they’re looking at you like a couple of electrocuted sheep,” comments Porgy about his Master’s students) to his awareness that Joan needs “to be with someone more comfortable with existence” a real portrait is painted. Turing’s coping with his homosexuality is deftly handled, his astonishment at being dispensed with in his prime is gut wrenching and his despair is palpable.

(I’m sure the specifics of Turing’s work were included to educate, but I for one, found many going over my head). We could also have done without both fortune tellers.

Snoo Wilson is a talented writer both with the turn of an evocative phrase: “the slight pong of unburnt gasoline” (wow) and with his characters. He evokes the period as vividly as Turing’s situation. The conceit of Porgy—was there really a bear?—is brave, has charm…and works. Sebastian’s teddy, Aloysius, could not possibly have narrated Brideshead Revisited.

Wilson’s intellect is impressive.

Director Cheryl Faraone did a splendid job with complicated material, a large cast, and a variation of “real” and dream states which might, in other hands, have been confusing. Again, bravo bear! Wait till you see him as a Christmas tree! And, despite Porgy’s eloquence, he’s often so very beautifully, (physically) bear-like. Personalities are well defined. The stage is well and aesthetically used. Projections are excellent, especially the last coda…as is Porgy’s imaginatively realized, touching goodbye.

I would only suggest the elimination of the uneven British accents.

Danielle Nieves costumes are attractive and credible. Her design for Porgy is inspired.

Jimmy Wong’s sound design is terrific. From The Andrews Sisters and Irving Berlin to a surprising number by the cartoon animals in Disney’s Snow White, every musical background and bridge is apt and inventive.

Alex Draper is a sympathetic Turing. Innocence, stoicism, enthusiasm, resignation, and inability to relate in the ordinary world are naturalistically drawn. Small changes on his face are interesting and affecting. He seems easy in his skin. The performance is artful and unstudied.

After this, I’d go see Tara Giordano (Porgy) in anything. She is one great performer.

Giordano channels a dozen theatrical genres with equal skill and not a false note. Her focus is complete. She moves with comic truth and even trussed up in all that fur manages subtlety.

The ensemble cast is, on the whole, extremely good. Cassidy Boyd deserves a call out for her delicate Christopher (Turing’s best and only friend at public school) and her thoughtful, practical Joan. Lilli Stein has a noticeably sharp turn as Bronwyn, doing her messy bit for the war and Peter B. Schmitz is solid and believable in whatever role he’s given.

In the footsteps of Harold Pinter, Larry Kramer, and Terrence McNally, Snoo Wilson writes with passion and intelligence about his subject and the sorry state of society’s lack of acceptance. Unfortunately, in a possible emulation of the inestimable Tony Kushner, his piece is over burdened by mythology, symbolism and excessive exposition. Enmeshed in the two hours fifteen minutes of Lovesong for the Electric Bear is a really good hour and forty minute play. Oh that it were more accessible!

Lovesong of the Electric Bear by Snoo Wilson
Directed by Cheryl Faraone
The Potomoc Theater Project at
Atlantic Theater Stage II
330 West 16th Street; 212-279-4200
Through August 1

Photo credit, Stan Barouh.
Photos from top:

Photo 1 (L-R): Alex Draper as Alan Turing (mathematician, WWII code-breaker and father of computer science) and Cassidy Boyd as Joan (Turing’s Bletchley Park colleague and one time fiancée)
Photo 2 (L-R): Tara Giordano as Porgy Bear and Alex Draper as a young Alan Turing (mathematician, WWII code-breaker and father of computer science)
Photo 3 (L-R): Tara Giordano as Porgy Bear and Alex Draper as Alan Turing (mathematician, WWII code-breaker and father of computer science)
Photo 4 (L-R): Alex Cranmer as Blackwood and Alex Draper as Alan Turing (mathematician, WWII code-breaker and father of computer science)

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