Strand Theater opens with a Caryl Churchill play

ACT inaugurates handsome new theater on Market Street1434904772Love_and_Information_06_web.jpg

The biggest Bay Area theater news of 2015 is the arrival at last of American Conservatory Theater’s sleek new venue on Market Street.  Once a movie house, the building across from United Nations Plaza had fallen into disrepair when the company acquired it.  Gutting it, ACT transformed it into a stunning, state-of-the-art playspace, with a bright, spacious lobby, a slope of seats with excellent sightlines, and a sizzling color scheme of eye-popping Chinese red.  Both the tall exterior and the auditorium are painted that red, as if to announce, “I’m here!”

Here, indeed, and welcome.  Named after the defunct movie house it replaces, the theater is called The Strand.

Any downside?  The industrial-strength seats are hard-surfaced and a bit butt-unfriendly, but if the shows are good, few people will notice.  Which brings us to The Strand’s very first show, noted British playwright Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information.

The title refers, program notes suggest, to two necessary modes of living: (1) the need, the search, for love, and (2) the need for information: truth, facts or at least the semblance of them, and how these two modes depend on one another, mingle, interact.  The work, which tells no story, is broken up into 57 unrelated scenes (unrelated to narrative, that is), some only seconds long, none longer than five minutes, consisting of scattershot encounters mostly between two people.

Scene one depicts a woman trying to pry a secret from a gal-pal (information).  Scene fifty-seven depicts a declaration of affection (love).  In between are moments that sometimes have a comic kick but that usually explore a serious theme: the Iraq War, the existence of God, climate change.  In one a son learns that his sister is actually his mother; in another a panicked man refuses to open his door to a pursuer.

All this plays out in about an hour and a half.  The production, crisply directed by Casey Stangl, is a textbook of striking modern staging, with lively visuals–photos of the people and places of San Francisco–dancing on a big LED screen above the playspace, designed by Micah J. Stieglitz, inventive lighting by Lap Chi Chu, arresting music and sound by Andrew Mayer, wonderfully varied costumes by Jessie Amoroso.  Robert Brill anchors it all with spare but rich scenic design, and the twelve actors who portray multiple characters are game and watchable.  I enjoyed their interaction with one another and with the production itself.

But then there’s the play–if play it can be called.  Some things are more than the sum of theirs parts.  Love and Information may be less.  Not that I don’t understand why artistic director Cary Perloff chose the work.  The Strand is supposed to be a venue for more challenging presentations.  Too, Perloff has said she views Love and Information as reflecting the new theater’s mixed-bag neighborhood of low-down and high-tech.

But the non-committal nature of Churchill’s invention. uncommitted to narrative or to any fixed meaning, that is, left me stranded (no pun intended), and its jumpy nature made me itch.  Its form is not all that unfamiliar: the Carol Burnett Show used it and so does SNL once a week, but SNL doesn’t take itself seriously.  Love and Information has its moments, and I honor the actors and the artistic team supporting them.  But though ACT hosted an after-party on opening night, with plenty of food and drink, of which I gratefully partook, I left the theater hungry.  I wanted a story, I wanted a play.

Love and Information plays on Market Street until August 9th.  ACT’s upcoming Geary Street season sets out with Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses and includes Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness and the annual return of A Christmas Carol.  For tickets/information call 415-749-2250 or visit