The title may not grab you but, trust me, The Analytical Engine at Circle Theatre is a quirky romantic comedy that’s a guaranteed good time. Though this new work won the 2009 Julie Harris Playwriting Award, this is its premiere production. The eccentric, impulsive characters are charming. The writing is brisk and inventive. And director-designer Bob Knuth presents a delightfully unique theatrical experience.
This Circle show is especially exciting in that we witness playwright Jon Steinhagen making his debut as an actor in one of his own shows. Steinhagen admits it’s simultaneously unsettling and invigorating to be performing his own words.
Circle audiences, of course, have long enjoyed Steinhagen playing leading roles in shows like Sweet Smell of Success and Mack & Mabel.
Let me disclose here that, 20 years ago, Steinhagen and I collaborated on several musical comedy shows: I wrote the books and he composed the scores.
What’s an “analytical engine”? It’s a mid-19th century computer. I had no idea that digital programs involving punched cards and printers even existed in the 1800s. But this play, which combines factual material with madcap romantic complications, deals with online dating a century and a half ago. (While I was in college in the mid-1960s, free computer dating was conducted as an experiment in several Illinois colleges. We were told this was a first. I recall hitchhiking from Macomb to Monmouth to meet my “ideal date,” with whom I had nothing in common.)
You may be familiar with the “screwball comedy” movie genre of 1930s Hollywood. In these wacky films, love conquers all, but the lovers have to struggle a bit first.
Steinhagen’s show is rather like Jane Austen Goes Screwball. Think of a Victorian drawing room drama where everything in the tight, well-made plot is juxtaposed – rich and poor, smart and stupid, rationality and emotions. Next imagine a delightfully unconventional old-school movie actress like Jean Arthur or Carole Lombard playing an emancipated, strong-willed heroine. Then add a lovestruck but rejected potential suitor.
Like Jo in Little Women, Patricia Austin is tomboyish and sexy as Hippolyta Powell. Polly, as she’s called, is an enterprising, liberated young woman who employs scientific equations to find her “perfect match.” But the man her machine matches her with is not the man who loves her.
Though Polly is often smeared with grime and has her hair unattractively tied up in a bandana while she’s working on her machine, an enterprising merchant named Eppa Morton (Steinhagen) worships her. But out of the 246 local bachelors Polly has programmed into her analytical engine, Eppa only scored 27 percent in terms of a match. So she won’t even consider him as a romantic possibility.
Eric Lindahl plays Eppa’s rival, a good-looking but rather vain lawyer named Nathaniel Swade, who scored an impressive 91 percent.
The analytical engine, by the way, is unseen – located in an adjacent barn – but we hear it working. It sounds something like a locomotive trying to drown out an earthquake. Peter J. Storms created the perfect sound design.
Polly’s mother, portrayed by Mary Redmon, is a flaky artist who burns everything she cooks. If this really were a ’30s screwball comedy, this ditsy matron would be played by Spring Byington or Zasu Pitts. She’s ever bemoaning the fact that her daughters are far more intelligent than she is while she spews malapropisms, confusing “memento” with “pimento.”
Kathy Ferrara plays Polly’s lovely sister Marigold, a classy, well-dressed novelist who publishes her books under a male pseudonym.
Lady Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, now regarded as the very first computer programmer, is played by Denita Linnertz. Lovely and lively, she arrives from England to see Polly’s work for herself. This captivating character deserves to be seen again!
There’s a bit of a second act slump, where energy flags, but it’s over almost the moment you notice it.
Knuth’s set design, complete with wainscoting and decorated with nautical prints, is beautifully executed. Lori Willis was the scenic artist.
The assistant director is Brooke Sherrod Jaeky. The stage manager is Rebecca Miles-Steiner.