Deanna Dunagan in Lookingglass Theatre's Death Watch
Deanna Dunagan in Lookingglass Theatre's Death Watch Credit: Liz Lauren

Remember that notice in the Reader‘s Fall Arts special last week? The one advising you to read every word because there’s going to be a test? No? Well, maybe we forgot to run it. But here’s the first question anyway: Which emerging American playwright has not just one but two shows running right now at important off-Loop venues?

If you answered “Lucas Hnath,” then you know the material and I’m proud of you. Hnath’s Death Tax is getting an excellent production at Lookingglass Theatre even as his Isaac’s Eye receives a less satisfying one from Writers.

The product of an advanced education in the theater arts, Hnath exhibits the familiar scholastic compulsion to call attention to the artifice of dramatic narrative—a compulsion I’ve become more and more impatient with over time, partly because the artifice is self-evident (yes, I know I’m at a show, I remember taking my seat); partly because it so often overwhelms and trivializes every other consideration; partly because I thought the whole issue was settled by people like Bertolt Brecht, way back in the 20th century; and partly because it more often than not leads to plays that are insufferably coy.

At least the talented Hnath has a good reason for calling attention to the artifice of Death Tax and Isaac’s Eye: both plays chart the continuum of human deception—self- and otherwise—from imperfect understanding to outright lies.

Death Tax is set in a health care facility—an ideal locus, when you think about it, for a hard look at fact, fiction, and the fiction of fact. Rich old Maxine occupies an adjustable bed there and is generally thought to be on her way out. Even she measures her remaining time in weeks. But exactly how many weeks is the crucial question. Maxine knows that her grown daughter stands to inherit a lot more money if mom kicks before the tax laws change on January 1. As cynical as she is shrewd, Maxine has therefore surmised that the daughter is bribing nurse Tina to do little things here and there to ensure that death arrives before the New Year. Maxine counters by promising Tina even more to keep her alive. Tina, meanwhile, has her own set of fictions to tell herself and others—as does her supervisor, Todd, whose naked loneliness is one of the few incontrovertible realities of Death Tax.

Never mind who’s right, because the truth of the situation is that everybody’s acting on imperfect intelligence processed through their own pathetic and fearful internal prompts, even as larger forces—larger modes of artifice like economics, medical advances, the law—impose their own order on the situation.

Hnath never lets us forget that the play itself is yet another fabrication, using devices like (a) having Tina introduce each new scene and (b) specifying a minimal set, at once starkly and elegantly realized by John Musial in Heidi Stillman’s sharp staging. For all that, however, Death Tax is as securely tethered to the world as, well, death and taxes. (It also offers a neat 11th-hour twist; when I spoke to Hnath for the Fall Arts feature, he mentioned that audiences tend to react to that twist with “a sharp intake of breath” or an “oddly blissful laugh,” and he’s right.)

By comparison, Isaac’s Eye comes across as an exercise in theater-school aesthetics, albeit an accomplished, occasionally charming one.

The Isaac of the title is Isaac Newton, he of the falling apple and the clockwork universe. Hnath presents him to us here as a quirky young man with an uncomfortably low affect, a disregard for convention, and, really, no morals at all—though, given his dissociative geekiness, it can be argued that he may not understand what morals are. The one thing Isaac certainly does understand is that he’s got a God-given destiny. He’s decided that a crucial step toward achieving that destiny is to become a member of the scientific fraternity known as the Royal Society, and so he pesters and parlays with Robert Hooke, a major scientist of the era who holds an exalted position in the society.

Played by Marc Grapey—strangely but effectively, as a kind of smart hood—Hooke is piece of work on a par with Isaac. Hnath uses his interaction with the younger scientist to get at some piquant ironies of history, especially those having to do with how history is spun.

But Hnath also loads the script with twee metatheatrical gestures. A narrator, a blackboard for writing down facts (as opposed to the playwright’s inventions), and the title character’s on-the-spectrum diction combine to push Isaac’s Eye over the cliff into insufferable coyness.

It doesn’t help that director Michael Halberstam never locates the humor in his appointed Hnath. Along with Deanna Dunagan‘s tough/sad/delightful performance as Maxine, Heidi Stillman’s best tool for shaping Lookingglass’s successful Death Tax is her recognition that much of what goes on in it can be darkly hilarious. Halberstam tends to substitute a smirking cuteness for humor, which means that neither Grapey nor the marvelous Elizabeth Ledo—giving a powerfully plain performance as Isaac’s putative girlfriend, Catherine—can make Isaac’s Eye work.