David Byrne has written an ambitious play, “Secret Life of Humans,” which is part of the 2018 Brits Off Broadway series and is a presentation of New Diodrama Theatre in co-production with Greenwich Theatre. Co-directed by Byrne and Kate Stanley, the drama attempts to examine human behavior in light of where we originated, where we are today and where we may be bound for in the future.
This is heady stuff, and as one might expect, it is a tall order to find clarity in delivering the analysis in dramatic terms. In some ways the result is successful, but it is also at times bogged down in its complexity and mixed time sequences in the staging.
The takeoff point is a lecture by a professor, Ava, played by Stella Taylor, who asks audience members to examine their hands to illustrate her point that we once walked on hands and feet before evolving to emerge upright. She jokes that this is the most audience participation there will be in the play, but she has established awareness of the span of human history.
That segues into her meeting Jamie (Andrew Strafford-Baker), who turns out to be the grandson of Jacob Bronowski, the renowned British mathematician, writer and historian especially famous for his book “The Ascent of Man” and the 1973 BBC television series by that name. Bronowski (1908-1974) also was involved in work for the British government in World War II. Later, he visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki to observe the results of the nuclear bombings, and he also visited Auschwitz in tracing results of the Holocaust.
Ava sleeps with Jamie in the family home where Bronowski lived, and it turns out that she has a special motivation, getting close enough to Jamie to look into his grandfather’s private papers and learn what they may reveal. In flashbacks, we get to hear from Bronowski, played earnestly by Richard Delaney, who also addresses the audience directly. We also meet his wife, Rita, played by Olivia Hirst. The other character is George (Andy McLeod), a work associate of Bronowski for the British government in the war.
With the territory covered we see humankind at its worst, and the perspective for the future, based on the past, doesn’t afford much hope. The overall thrust of “Secret Life of Humans” comes across as somewhat muddled, as well as a lot to swallow in the course of the 80-minute intermission-less work, and it can leave viewers baffled as well as intrigued by its attempt to assess so-called civilization. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street. Phone: 212-279-4200. Reviewed June 8, 2018.