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Secret Life Of Humans, Tchaikovsky-None But The Lonely Heart


What makes us human? Do we have an innate propensity for violence or can we curb such impulses through socialization? What is the nature of man and progress?

Such questions were the province of the esteemed mathematician Jacob “Bruno” Bronowski (Richard Delaney), who, among other achievements, wrote and presented the famed BBC show “The Ascent of Man.”

Delving into these provocative questions — and his own hidden past — is the essence of Secret Life Of Humans, now at 59E59 Theaters, part of its Brits Off Broadway series, inspired by Yuval Harari’s book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.”

And it’s a fascinating look at the nature of belief and responsibility.

Bronowski’s grandson Jamie (Andrew Stratfford-Baker) is a scruffy, super-naïve guy coping with his mother’s death. He meets Ava, an anthropologist, on Tinder (Stella Taylor). When she discovers his academic lineage, she’s more than intrigued. Once he shows her Bruno’s secret, locked room, which given his scientific credentials in WWII era is hardly surprising, all bets are off.

Ava challenges Bruno’s assertion that “humans have moved forward in a straight, unbroken line of progress.” A view she dubs “simplistic.” As she soon learns, reality is nuanced; great minds can advance progressive, positive theories even while confronting evil. However, a serious response to evil doesn’t merit misplaced, handwringing angst. There is a major difference between toxic Nazi dogma and those who combat its genocidal and destructive results.

Conflating the two is both simplistic and absurd.

Still writer-codirector David Byrne raises compelling intellectual and philosophical questions into the neatly paced, smartly staged Secret Life of Humans, aided by interesting visuals and clever sound design. Jen McGinley's sets give the play added scholarly weight. (Byrne shares directing credit with Kate Stanley.)

We again live in perilous times — and it's vital to address the critical questions raised, aided by a solid cast, however annoying the character of Jamie may be.

Bronowski is an excellent subject of study — and the issues he wrestles with will captivate audiences long after they leave the theater.


While some confront life’s complexities head-on, others, awash in fear and sensitivity, often retreat. The great composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) expressed his own melancholy and emotional longings via music, captured off-Broadway in Tchaikovsky – None But The Lonely Heart at the Signature’s Studio Theater.

Many know his "Swan Lake" and "The Nutcracker", but his “Scherzo, Op. 42 For Violin And Piano” are equally exquisite.

The Ensemble for the Romantic Century’s forte is the theatrical concert. Here, it uses a singer (Adrian Kramer), dancer (Daniel Mantei), musicians and actors to explore the vital relationship that rescued Tchiakovsky (Joey Slotnick) — the patronage of Nadezhda von Meck (Shorey Walker).

Letters and diaries augment the music.

Though he taught harmony at the Moscow Conservatory, Tchiakovsky longed for the economic freedom to compose. Thanks to von Meck, he achieved that dream from 1878-1890, with an interesting caveat: They could never meet.

None But The Lonely Heart explores their complicated relationship; their   letters are filled with candor and affection. Clearly, the friendship sustained them both. She struggled with loneliness, despite a brood of children, he was tormented by repressed homosexuality — later fleeing a disastrous marriage and engulfed by fears of scandal.

 Eva Wolf, who wrote last year’s remarkable Van Gogh’s Ear, has delivered a quiet, yet poignant chamber-music production. It’s a small stage — so combining various arts is ambitious. Yet Slotnick’s brooding performance and Walker’s singular von Meck are memorable. So is the artistry of Stephanie Zyzak (violin) Ari Evan (cello) and Ji (piano). The production, like Tchaikovsky’s music, is achingly touching.  —Fern Siegel

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