David Byrne — no, not the American singer-songwriter, artist, activist, filmmaker, and bike enthusiast but the award-winning British artistic director of New Diorama Theatre — takes a deep dive into what makes our species what it is in the strangely fascinating, offbeat Secret Life of Humans, which opened last night as part of the annual Brits Off Broadway series at 59E59. Inspired by Yuval Noah Harari’s 2011 bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Dr. Jacob “Please call me Bruno” Bronowski’s 1973 book and BBC program The Ascent of Man, Byrne employs psychology and cultural anthropology to get inside our DNA. “In our minds we are these complex, rich, intellectual beings, full of nuance and philosophy, contradiction and politics, of science and art, of love and sadness,” Ava (an enticing Stella Blue Taylor) says at the beginning of the play. “We have gone from animals, to believing we alone were created in the image of gods. And now, finally, to where we are today, all powerful gods ourselves. Sitting in this lecture theatre, talking and listening.”
In her early thirties, Ava serves as a kind of host and narrator as well as a character, often speaking to the audience directly, supplying facts and providing transitions. Ava goes on a blind internet date with the slightly younger Jamie (a fine Andrew Strafford-Baker), who turns out to be the grandson of Dr. Bronowski (an excellent Richard Delaney), whom Ava has studied extensively. “He was like the first David Attenborough, wasn’t he?” she asks, a moment later offending Jamie by saying, “His view of the world is a little simplistic. For me. But he was groundbreaking. For the time.” The eighty-five-minute show then cuts back and forth between several narratives in multiple time periods: in the present, Ava goes back to Jamie’s parents’ house, where she wants to get a look into Bruno’s locked room; in the past, the doctor becomes involved in a secret project for the military in WWII with a soft-spoken, jittery mathematics graduate named George (a sensitive Andy McLeod); and, in between, Bruno is interviewed by Michael Parkinson on the BBC in 1974. (You can watch the full television discussion here.) Also making appearances is Bruno’s wife, Rita (a classy Olivia Hirst).
One of the central conflicts in the play is the historical ascent of man itself. While Dr. Bronowski ascribes to Rudolph Zallinger’s “The Road to Homo Sapiens,” the famous straight-line depiction of an ape evolving into a human that is also known as “March of Progress,” Ava believes in a more broken, crooked development, which is evoked in a nonlinear narrative that jumps around through time and space. “What I want to tell you, it starts now, some of it happened just a fortnight ago,” Ava says early on. “And some of it, it goes back thousands of years. Millions actually. And it’s about what makes us human. Of how we’ve progressed, but we’ve not changed. How our destiny as a species — in the same way a fruit holds a stone, its future, at its core — has been inside each one of us from the very beginning. About how this, our body, our animal body, is still layered with the footprints of those primitive ancestors. It’s still weak, analogue, vulnerable, and lonely. Often completely unfit for purpose.”
A coproduction of New Diorama and Greenwich Theatre in London, Secret Life of Humans premiered in 2017 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and now fits right in at the cozy main theater at 59E59. Jen McGinley’s set expands from a lone chair in the center to several bookcases rolled on and off the stage and rearranged to identify different locations. Zakk Hein’s projections include archival footage of Dr. Bronowski with Parkinson, cave drawings, mathematical equations, and ghostly apparitions. In 1986, the David Byrne of Talking Heads fame directed, cowrote, and starred in True Stories, a film that he referred to as “a project with songs based on true stories from tabloid newspapers. It’s like 60 Minutes on acid.” With Secret Life of Humans, which also deals with the nature of truth and mixes fiction and nonfiction, the British David Byrne and codirector Kate Stanley, who previously collaborated on Down & Out in Paris and London, have come up with a play that is like BBC America on shrooms: In addition to the shifting time and philosophical and scientific perspectives, there also are people walking on walls. A form of theatrical excavation, the play is extremely self-aware, with a wry sense of humor, though it is also repetitive and occasionally teeters dangerously close to resembling an institutional, instructional video teaching us about various aspects of the social contract as we seek to define who we are, why we are here, and where we are heading. However, despite talk of death and nuclear destruction, Secret Life of Humans is ultimately optimistic about our future, as well as the future of science, philosophy, and theater itself.