"Don't listen to the words--listen to the song," exhorts one of the characters in Tina Landau's "Space," an eyeful and earful, if not quite a headful, now making its West Coast premiere at the Mark Taper Forum.
The exhortation is Landau's as well. The writer and director of this pretty, if pretty familiar, fantasia evokes all manner of celestial wonder as we witness the gradual bonding of her unlikely not-quite-lovers, a pompous neuropsychiatrist and an astronomer listening for life among the stars while dealing valiantly with lupus.
Dr. Allan Saunders (Francis Guinan) is a right-brain mind waiting to take a left. He's a famous author, a popular lecturer at a Harvard-like institution who has lately become a magnet for people claiming to be UFO abductees. They include Devin (Michael Reisz), driven to learn why "the little guys" from another galaxy have returned; Joan (Mary Pat Gleason), who develops mysterious lesions; and Taj Mahal (J. August Richards), a courier by trade, tuned deeply into the music of the spheres.
What's up with this confluence of abductees? Saunders' skeptical boss (Alan Oppenheimer) has little to say on the subject. Then Saunders consults Dr. Bernadette Jump Cannon (Shannon Cochran), vigilant observer of the night sky at the same university. Aided by her assistant Carl (Eric D. Steinberg), Cannon opens Saunders' mind up to the possibilities of life elsewhere. And before long, Saunders realizes what his own world needs now is love, sweet love.
"Space" consciously samples themes and lines from such collective pop culture dreams as "The Wizard of Oz," "Alice in Wonderland" and "A Christmas Carol." It's as much about the space between isolated humans as it is about living a life lost in the stars.
The whirligig of a production unfolds on scenic designer James Schuette's spacious planetarium-like set, ideal for astral projections of the Milky Way or images of Galileo, Stephen Hawking and the like. Landau's staging is like an illustrated lecture delivered, and lived, by Saunders. It throws in a strolling astral-minstrel as well (glorious Karen Fineman, who was terrific in the Reprise! version of "Promises, Promises"), gliding to and fro on the angled ramp looming above the stage.
At this point in the century, the alien abduction theme isn't what you'd call daisy-fresh. "Space," conceived several years ago and premiered in 1997 at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, can't help but recall various pop liberal-humanist space explorations, from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" to "The X-Files" to "Contact." Like "Contact" in particular, "Space" uses the Life Out There peg on which to hang questions both universal (Are we alone?) and specific (Can an earthbound analytical mind learn to let go a little?).
On purely atmospheric terms "Space" works well, though Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen's relentless sound design can't get enough of those file-drawers-slamming-shut aural cues. (It's not a leitmotif; it's just a tic.) Landau served as director and co-writer of the musical drama "Floyd Collins," seen recently at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre. That rendition proved Landau's painterly eye and conceptual elegance, as did her La Jolla Playhouse staging of Jose Rivera's "Cloud Tectonics." She can find her way into all sorts of worlds, and find ways to bring us along. Little wonder, then, she is in negotiations with Disney (or, as I like to call it, Walt-Mart) to bring "Pinocchio" to the stage.
All the same, "Space" persuades visually more so than verbally. The central Saunders-Cannon relationship is heartfelt, but in a schematic way, and the supporting characters remain more functional than inspired. The text is punctuated by various space "flights," hallucinations experienced by Saunders, yet the show never risks true, full disorientation. It's very much of a piece, artful and accomplished--assaultively so in Act 1, more contemplative in Act 2--yet I wish the whole thing were . . . more of a trip, I suppose, taking us inside a mind cracking open to new possibilities.
Guinan plays Saunders as a big ol' goofball, too much so, perhaps (though he's excellent in the lecture scene, where he falls apart most publicly). Cochran is honest and unsentimental as Cannon. The supporting work is uniformly strong.
Many, I suspect, will be happily abducted by "Space." Consider me an impressed but partial abductee.
* "Space," Mark Taper Forum, Music Center of Los Angeles County, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Ends Nov. 14. $29-$42. (213) 628-2772. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
Francis Guinan: Dr. Allan Saunders
Alan Oppenheimer: Dr. Jim Lacey
Michael Reisz: Devin McFallen
Mary Pat Gleason: Joan Bailey
J. August Richards: Taj Mahal
Eric D. Steinberg: Carl Himayo
Shannon Cochran: Dr. Bernadette Jump Cannon
Karen Fineman: The Singer
Written and directed by Tina Landau. Set by James Schuette. Costumes by Melina Root. Lighting by Scott Zielinski. Sound and music by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen. Projections by Jan Hartley. Stage manager Mary K. Hilow.