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Hannah Moscovitch's Infinity: Had we but world enough, and time

Infinity tells the tales of physicist Elliot (played by Paul Braunstein) and young mathematician Sarah Jean (Haley McGee)

Cylla von Tiedemann

3 out of 4 stars

Title
Infinity
Written by
Hannah Moscovitch
Directed by
Ross Manson
Actors
Paul Braunstein, Haley McGee, Amy Rutherford
Venue
Tarragon Theatre
City
Toronto
Year
2015

Infinity, a moving new play by Hannah Moscovitch, puts two theories about time into dramatic conflict with one another – the first, that time is an illusion; the other, that time is real.

The play has a show-and-tell structure. In a monologue, young mathematician Sarah Jean (Haley McGee) tells us that she is messed-up about love – well, she uses a cruder expression – and endeavours to prove the point by relating her sexual history from high school to college with the frankness of a woman of Lena Dunham's generation. (This is Moscovitch writing in the signature style that made her name – the hesitant confession.)

At the same time, Infinity shows us the story of a physicist named Elliot (Paul Braunstein) and a composer named Carmen (Amy Rutherford) who meet at a university party and bond while talking about time – in musical and in mathematical terms. They then embark on an unlikely and often unhappy love affair, accelerated by an unexpected pregnancy.

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Eventually, these two separate timelines converge in a way that is not entirely unexpected, especially if you've glanced at the program ahead of time.

Infinity shifts from a play of ideas to a family drama – and it's a beautifully acted one, with everyone filling in the emotional gaps in the script in performances that are pitched just slightly larger-than-life. It may be that each of these awkward characters is somewhere on the autism spectrum, but Moscovitch, refreshingly, stays away from diagnosing her characters. Braunstein's performance as Elliot is a particular pleasure – and the way in which he widens his eyes eagerly, searching the crowd for reaction to his puns while delivering a lecture, is deeply endearing.

It's Elliot who starts the play believing that time does not exist. "Time, like religion, is a dumb story that got repeated too much," he tells his eight-year-old daughter, at one point. But events intervene to challenge his theory – well, Einstein's theory, really.

Elliot's PhD thesis was on a theory of everything, but that's what director Ross Manson's production could really use. Instead, Infinity is served up in chunks: Violinist Andrea Tyniec's musical interjections; movement sequences choreographed by Kate Alton; and naturalistic scenes. Everything works separately, but it never really integrates.

The action all plays out on a swooping, striped white set designed by Teresa Przybylski that effectively communicates the concept of infinity; it's like a Mobius strip made out of blank sheet music.

It has an artfulness in engaging with the themes that is sometimes missing from Moscovitch's script. Indeed, the further Infinity gets away from theory-dropping about loops and strings and time, the more satisfying it becomes.

Matters mathematical reigned in the theatre in the 1990s, when Tom Stoppard's Arcadia had its stunning premiere and John Mighton's under-appreciated canon of science-influenced plays were first staged in Canada. That all culminated in a turn-of-millennium cluster that included Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, David Auburn's Proof and Charlotte Jones's Humble Boy – and the trend seemed to exhaust itself.

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And so Infinity (a co-production between Manson's Volcano Theatre and Tarragon Theatre) seems like a throwback – but that may simply be my time-based experience of it, and a relative rather than absolute one.

In the end, Moscovitch's play is less interesting in what it says about time than what it communicates about the experience of Sarah Jean and perhaps her generation, raised in a postmodern culture where everything was described as a construct, suddenly having to grapple with the realness of things as an adult. Time, love, gender, achievement, religion – what if these are real things and not just illusions? The existence of things is sometimes the scary concept now.

Infinity continues to May 3 (tarragontheatre.com).

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