A Play That Takes the Cosmos Personally
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A Play That Takes the Cosmos Personally

Hannah Moscovitch—with a little help from the iconoclastic scientist Lee Smolin—explores time, love, and family in her latest work, Infinity.

Paul Braunstein and Haley McGee portray a physicist and his daughter in Hannah Moscovitch's Infinity at Tarragon Theatre  Photo by Cylla von Tiedeman

Paul Braunstein and Haley McGee portray a physicist and his daughter in Hannah Moscovitch’s Infinity at Tarragon Theatre. Photo by Cylla von Tiedeman.

Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman Avenue)
Runs to May 3
$29–$55 (rush tickets: $15)

What happens when the “It Girl” of Canadian playwriting meets the rebel of theoretical physics? You get Infinity, Hannah Moscovitch’s funny, moving new play inspired by the theories of Lee Smolin.

The prolific and much-produced Moscovitch is best known for tackling history, whether it’s the Stalin-era Soviet Union (The Russian Play) or the Holocaust (East of Berlin, The Children’s Republic). But with her latest work, the 36-year-old playwright is taking on time itself—or, to be precise, time as conceived by Smolin, the Toronto-based academic and author recently described by the Guardian as “one of the bad boys of contemporary physics and cosmology.”

In books like his 2013 bestseller Time Reborn, Smolin has had the chutzpah to question Einstein and his disciples, challenging the prevailing idea that time is an illusion and the laws of nature do not change. Moscovitch’s play puts Smolin’s radical concept into dramatic terms as it traces both the messy marriage of two brilliant, difficult people—Elliot, a theoretical physicist, and Carmen, a composer—and the luckless love life of their adult daughter, Sarah Jean. Smolin’s theories on the tangibility of time and the possibility for change permeate the play, making it at once sad and hopeful.

The show, a coproduction between Toronto’s Tarragon and Volcano theatre companies, opens this Wednesday in the Tarragon Extraspace. It’s directed by Volcano AD Ross Manson and stars Paul Braunstein as Elliot, Amy Rutherford as Carmen, and Haley McGee as Sarah Jean. They share the stage with violinist Andréa Tyniec, who performs an original score composed by Njo Kong Kie, former musical director of Montreal dance troupe La La La Human Steps.

Joining the director and cast for a recent photo shoot at Tarragon, where she’s a playwright-in-residence, Moscovitch had the beaming look of a new mother—and not just because she’s about to give birth to another play. She’s six months pregnant and she and her husband, director Christian Barry, are expecting their first child at the end of June. She sat down in the theatre’s lobby with Torontoist to discuss the origins of Infinity, Smolin’s contribution to the play, and other projects, including her work on CBC’s Second World War espionage series X Company.

Torontoist: I understand that this play grew out of a workshop you did at Volcano seven years ago. So it’s been a slow work in progress?

Hannah Moscovitch: Ross [Manson] wanted me to write about time. He’d read a Harper’s article about the difference between astronomical and atomic time and he got interested in our notion of time shifting. But the subject is so opaque and abstract it just took me a long time to find a way to write about it. How do you make that personal and dramatic and moving? The play ended up being quite personal, actually, which is unusual for me. I don’t really write that way. I admire it when other writers do it, like Sheila Heti or Sylvia Plath, but I just don’t write that way myself.

In what way is the play personal?

There are a lot of similarities to my family. [Giggling]

Are you an only child like Sarah Jean?

No, I have a sister. No, it’s not autobiographical by any means. I’m not that brave yet. It’s funny, at an awards ceremony this year, Daniel MacIvor was hosting and he called me a “research scientist” playwright. And I was like, “Oh, that’s true.” [Laughing] I do research really hard and I tend to gravitate towards material that’s not close to my own experience.

With your career you’ve done the inverse of what most writers do, which is to begin by writing about themselves.

Yeah. When I’m writing stuff that’s very personal, I worry that it might be horrible or dull. I think it was only because the subject of time was so abstract and hard to get a hold of that I ended up going to my own personal relationships for inspiration.

The play also draws a lot on Lee Smolin’s ideas, not to mention his life. You’ve given the character of Elliot some of Smolin’s own background—he’s an American who takes his PhD at Harvard, writes a bestseller about time, and ends up in Toronto. And you’ve listed Smolin in the program credits as “consulting physicist.”

Lee actually wrote an eight-page biography for Elliot and I used a lot of what he wrote—where he would have gone to school, what he would have studied, what his moments of epiphany would be. And he also wrote an alternate version of the history of theoretical physics for us that we could use for the play.

How did the connection with him come about?

We read his book, Time Reborn, and we really admired it. Ross had the balls to approach him and as it turned out [Smolin] liked the idea of a collaboration with artists.

Of course, his mother, Pauline Smolin, is a playwright, so he must know his way around the theatre.

Yes, we were lucky that he appreciates the theatre, and he regrets the fact that scientists and artists work together less now than they did in ancient Greece. And I think we share a lot of similarities. We’re all creative people. When he describes the creative thinking that goes into theoretical physics, it sounds very familiar to me.

Toronto playwright Hannah Moscovitch. Photo courtesy of Tarragon Theatre.

Quite a few playwrights have dabbled in science and mathematics in the last 20 years. You quote the playwright-mathematician John Mighton in your script and he’s written plays inspired by physics and math, like Possible Worlds and The Little Years. And most famously, of course, there’s Tom Stoppard, whose Arcadia is based on chaos theory…

And Michael Frayn with Copenhagen. Oh, and Proof—David Auburn! Darn, I missed the curve. [Laughing]

Did you see those plays when you were younger and think, “Gosh, one day I’d like to write my own play about, say, string theory?”

Well, unlike John Mighton, I have to use a theoretical physicist as a consultant to write this kind of play. But for sure, I’ve admired The Little Years so much I think I’ve read it 30 times. I love that play. So, in a way I wanted to write this play [as a response to] The Little Years. There’s a scene in that play where a character listens to time and there’s a scene in mine where that also occurs. Canadian theatre finally has enough of a history that we can write plays in relation to earlier plays, in the same way that Pinter was influenced by Beckett, for example, or Mamet by Miller. I’m of a generation where we can actually do that in Canada now.

But yeah, I do admire those plays, but there are plays that are real ideas plays and I don’t think this is one of them. If you were to ask me to describe this play, I’d say it’s about the marriage between a composer and a physicist, and a girl’s sexual history. I don’t know if that’s quite an ideas play!

It’s an ambitious play, though. For example, you’ve used a musical score by Njo Kong Kie that expresses the characters’ emotions at times, in place of words. How was that created? Did he compose the pieces first, or did you give him the script for inspiration?

It kind of worked both ways. He started composing and then, once I started incorporating ideas about music and musical characters into the play, he began changing his compositions to fit what I was saying.

Do you have a musical background yourself?

No, I don’t. I played piano as a child. I did Suzuki. I’m not musical, but I admire musicians a great deal and I’ve had some chances in the last little while to collaborate with composers. I wrote the libretto for an opera commissioned by the Gotham Chamber Opera in New York, which was performed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year. [The piece, I Have No Stories to Tell You, was composed by Gotham’s resident composer, Lembit Beecher, whom Moscovitch met through Tapestry Opera in Toronto.] And I collaborated on The God That Comes, the musical project with Hawksley Workman.

This is shaping up to be another busy year for you—you just premiered another new play, What a Young Wife Ought to Know, at Halifax’s Neptune Theatre this winter.

Yes, and I’m about to go back to X Company, the TV show I’ve been working on. That’s really up my alley—it’s all about World War II. I’ve found out my superpower is that I know everything there is to know about Nazis. More than anyone should know! In the writers’ room they use me like I’m Wikipedia.

But your major production this year must be the baby. Do you know yet if it’s a boy or a girl?

We do, but we’re not telling anyone until it’s born. I know, that’s ridiculous. [Laughing] I’m having a really hard time not giving it away accidentally.