New York | 1h 45m | Already closed

The Light Years

From 31 critic and 161 member reviews
Members say: Disappointing, Ambitious, Slow, Confusing, Quirky

About the show

Playwrights Horizons presents the world premiere of The Debate Society's whimsical drama about a theatrical impresario whose daring imagination has life-changing consequences. More…

Behold The Spectatorium: an audacious, visionary 12,000-seat theater designed for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 by Steele MacKaye, the now-forgotten impresario around whom this haunted, 40-year love story spins. 'The Light Years' is an epic, intimate tale of two families struggling to meet their future, and a spectacular tribute to man’s indomitable spirit of invention.

Edge New York

“Full of unique pleasures that make it something very special…The writing itself has a special charm, with a funny and slightly offbeat sensibility…Those warm, passionate, and hopeful characters are given life by a small but spectacular cast…Innovation, art, family, history, and destiny all collide in this beautiful production. The Spectatorium may have been a dramatic failure, but over 100 years later it has given birth to something incandescent and unforgettable in ‘The Light Years.’” Full Review


“Playing a legendary man of the theater, Sisto explodes with extravagant vitality…In Butler's lavish yet restrained staging, the house becomes like an eighth character…Butler displays an impressive command of time, speeding the narrative up and slowing it down so this decade-hopping story comes together seamlessly…Even though it drags in sections, it is impossible not to admire the sheer audacity of building a play around the necessity of failure in the creative process.” Full Review


"Their stories have a lovely Americana flavor, but aren't too saccharine to overlook that as everyman-woman-child counterparts they also had to deal with dreams that go sour...Butler has assembled a fine cast to navigate the 40-years apart worlds...Butler not only keeps the actors fluidly moving back and forth in time but around the versatile basic set...While 'The Light Years' covers a lot of ground, it would be even better if it could do so in about ten minutes less." Full Review


"Ambitious, theatrical and imaginative...The scenario is engaging and the characters are lovingly rendered. The material is perfectly realized by Mr. Butler’s vibrant direction...The actual plots are not overly gripping, but are part of the show’s warm fabric of presenting these bygone eras of American life with charm, whimsy and humanity...Though stylized, the performances never devolve into parody." Full Review

Time Out New York

"A theatrical cabinet of wonders...It’s the most ambitious contraption assembled to date by the 10-year-old Debate Society...Butler’s direction holds it all together, even if the first hour seems a trifle padded and meandering. While 'The Light Years' is ultimately tenuous in its dramatic circuitry, it gives off ample luminosity, powered by whimsy and wonder." Full Review


"[I]t is the script by Ms. Bos and Mr. Thureen that makes 'The Light Years' one the best new plays in quite some time." Full Review

NY Theatre Guide

"Russell H. Champa’s lighting design makes use of the stage to excellent effect, balancing bright lights with more tempered darkness...'The Light Years' is a heartfelt story of two families, living decades apart, but still dealing with the same fears, hopes, and tragedies. The outstanding performances, as well as the brilliant set design, bring this heartfelt story to life." Full Review

Reflections in the Light

"Cash is excellent as both female protagonists...Oliver Butler's direction is tight and focused, giving the two time periods distinction while avoiding confusion...The play gets point just for being different. This is not your typical story or presentation. An amazing amount of storytelling occurs in one hours and 45 minutes with no intermission...The play can be a bit scattered and struggles to find its ending." Full Review

More Than The Play Blog

“A story of inspiration and ingenuity…A heartfelt story of struggle, loss, and persistence. Director Oliver Butler chooses a distinctive style for the production that captures the spirit of the time period…The actors create a clear illusion that makes it easy and enjoyable to follow…The entire cast does an amazing job with this well written script, yet the stylistic concept of the characterizations does not allow for a personalized connection to the audience.” Full Review

Exeunt Magazine

"These dual time periods create interesting opportunities for both performance and design...The difference, brought out all the more by Cash playing both wives, is fascinating to watch. Two distinct kinds of affection are on display here...The set and costumes take advantage of the time period jumps, too...Overall, the design shines...Even with such a great sense of time period, deep connections form between these worlds and our own." Full Review

Our Theater Blog

"A very unusual play...We are transported to more innocent times, when novelty could inspire and awe and was not an unsophisticated or naive response...Every part of the theater space is treated to a bit of the performance. There are lights and things that go poof as well as narratives to explicate the drama. The ensemble engage, entertain and instruct...'The Light Years' uses some of the devices Steele MacKaye introduced to turn this small-scale production into a grand spectacle." Full Review

Times Square Chronicles

“Time intertwines these two couples together as their lives pass back and forth in a romantic, yet magical way…The cast is award-winning with Ms. Cash superbly inhabiting both roles…Bos and Thureen have a way with dialogue, but not with endings. We see and learn so much, and are rapt the whole time, but it is not the words that impress us in the end, but the spectacular lights..Sadly what started out with a bang, leaves us empty and unfulfilled in the end.” Full Review

Daily Beast

“A charming if slightly belabored play…Utter chaos, developed and directed with a genuine thrill of what-will-happen-next by Oliver Butler, unfolds...‘The Light Years’ is best in when it is playing with the world of light, and a little more plodding when it trades in conventional domestic drama...But the play is bound and threaded by a belief in creativity and wonder; a wide-eyed pleasure in all that we don’t know, and then bamboozle ourselves trying to invent.” Full Review

Theatre Reviews Limited

“A pleasant, but less than fulfilling concoction…There are deaths, explosions emitting from dreamy contraptions, actors roaming among the audience, and dialogue that certainly tickles the audience, if not my particular funny bone….The actors are all very good…It is certainly recommended for a family’s night out. There is a bright and curious child, flashing bulbs of all sizes and shapes, constellations sparkling from above, and even some history that goes down easily.” Full Review

Front Mezz Junkies

"This play carries a lot of the same vision and childlike fun, but sadly the light loses some focus and drive as we move deeper into the shadows of its lovely sad tale...Bos and Thureen do an impressive job giving us clever, loving dialogue and some wonderful, engaging characters, but the big picture is a little harder to see...We keep waiting for astounding, only to get quaint and sweet instead. It’s a lot of sound and fury, signifying, well not nothing, but something not enough." Full Review

The New York Times

"Finds a sweet, plaintive and ultimately too unvaried melody in its stories of failed aspirations...What the production lacks, curiously, is the surprise of theatrical spontaneity...Alternates between the 1890s and the 1930s with fluid grace and clarity. It has an attentive ear for the language and mores of its different eras and the professional argot of its characters...You respect the avid curiosity of the show’s creators, but their interests don’t translate into infectious passion." Full Review

Bob's Theater Blog

"The alternation of scenes between the two time periods is not really confusing, but produces a repeated loss of focus. Just as the aspirations of almost everyone in the play are not achieved, neither are the aspirations of the play’s creators. Despite the fine acting, impressive set design by Laura Jellinek, great period costumes by Michael Krass and an amazing lighting design by Russell H. Champa, the play fizzles rather than sizzles." Full Review


“Audiences love a good story about pioneering innovators who succeed despite the odds, and ‘The Light Years'’ affection for those who fail despite a grand effort is certainly worthy. The cast does a terrific job, but while the play has amusing and empathetic moments, the evening quickly loses steam when the authors start getting philosophical in their attempts to establish a connection between the two sets of characters.” Full Review


“‘The Light Years’ tosses off lots and lots of ideas. Unfortunately, it omits the glue that might help the audience put them together…The play, which uses a moving scroll at the side of the stage—MacKaye’s invention—to provide added information, is, I’d guess, a cautionary but hopeful tale about human progress, the eternal, love, life, death and things I’m sure I missed. It’s certainly not uninteresting, but it’s extremely frustrating in its lack of connective tissue.” Full Review

Theatre's Leiter Side

“The concept seems forced in order to make a point about following one's dream and to offer a theatrical image of differences in American society across the years. MacKaye's tale alone, and what he went through before having to scale back his goals, would have made a far more interesting play about American aspiration and technological progress, especially if some creative means had been found to represent what he was after. Here we get some light but very little illumination.” Full Review

Lighting & Sound America

"Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen have conceived a complex, clanking piece of dramatic machinery that produces such tiny and inconsequential revelations that one has to wonder if all that effort was really worth it...What really makes 'The Light Years' so lackluster is that, MacKaye aside, none of these characters are very interesting...This is especially unfortunate, since the stage is filled with such appealing performers...An elaborate dream that never comes to fruition." Full Review

Off Off Online

“Bos and Thureen’s script too often gets bogged down by didacticism, as if all the keen bits of historical lore they uncovered in their research had to be included. Unfortunately, it doesn’t substitute for dramatic conflict, and the struggles on both sides of the 40-year gap don’t really seize and hold one’s attention the way the visuals do. The actors perform well…But one wishes there were a more compelling reason to spend time with these characters than living history.” Full Review

Theater Pizzazz

"Its lack of focus diminishes its impact...The two plot lines run on parallel tracks...While they don’t detract from each other, neither do they add...Coexistence is a good thing in many situations, but it doesn’t provide much dramatic tension...Oliver Butler’s direction is fine but doesn’t clarify the play’s point of view or justify its lacking one. Many individual scenes and moments work well on their own but don’t contribute to the piece as a whole." Full Review

Village Voice

“The two intercut stories seem to fade in and out, rather than gaining momentum or strength from each other. Laden with explanations of historical tidbits that are hard to care about, both stories also contain glitchy, arbitrary turns that keep distancing the characters from us...Full of visual beauty, intelligent writing and fine acting, 'The Light Years' nonetheless seems to orbit farther away from our grasp with each new scene.” Full Review

Talkin' Broadway

"Despite the exciting, ironclad concept and a wealth of possibilities, the characters and the action are inert early on and preposterous later, without a smooth transition between the states. The sole energizing force is the women...The performers work intensely, and land most of their laughs, but don't find the emotional connections that Cash and MacKaye do. Not that there's that much to find...'The Light Years' is memorable more for what it tries than what it accomplishes." Full Review

Absorbing, Clever, Great acting

See it if you like to learn some history while enjoying a musical

Don't see it if you only like big , splashy musicals

Also I loved the piano playing

Absorbing, Enchanting, Great staging, Entertaining, Masterful

See it if you love unique, well-crafted stories with wonderful acting and gorgeous staging

Don't see it if you don't like hopping back and forth between time periods

Clever, Edgy, Great acting

See it if like innovative drama with original staging and technical effects

Don't see it if somewhat confusing plot lines.

Clever, Delightful, Beautiful, Ambitious

See it if If you're a fan of The Debate Society or want a beautiful story of two families connected through time.

Don't see it if You're looking for a deep, action-packed story. This one unfolds slowly and gently!

Ambitious, Charming, Imaginative, Thought-provoking, Quirky

See it if you have ever lived in hope. World Fairs are about the future even when things go wrong in the present. Lots of things go wrong, hope lives

Don't see it if you are too literal minded to imagine what comes next. Everyone in this play has a future and that future is now.

Clever, Ambitious, Quirky, Enchanting, Entertaining

See it if You're interested in unique, devised theatre created by one of the top troupes in the country. Or if you're interested in World's Fairs.

Don't see it if You don't like historical plays, or work that could be seen as being quirky just to be quirky.

Clever, Absorbing, Romantic, Thought-provoking, Confusing

See it if You like intimate theatre

Don't see it if A play about scientific experimentation doesn't interest you

Absorbing, Ambitious, Disappointing, Quirky, Thought-provoking

See it if You would like a character-driven piece that looks at the confluence of history.

Don't see it if You need a narrative that tied up into a neat little bundle at show's end.

Great staging, Ambitious, Enchanting, Resonant

See it if you enjoy visually stunning productions, enjoy plays about the creative process resonate with you and wonderful acting.

Don't see it if you can't tolerate very loud noises (there are electrical shock booms throughout), only like kitchen sink realism, hate devised theater.

Also I took a 6 year old who is recently interested in inventions to see it... Read more Read less

Ambitious, Intelligent, Quirky, Resonant, Indulgent

See it if you are ready to accept ambiguity and elusiveness in order to find moments of extraordinary beauty and resonance.

Don't see it if prefer plays with a clear narrative, theme and structure.

Clever, Entertaining, Confusing

See it if Like unusual subject and presentation

Don't see it if na

Absorbing, Delightful, Ambitious, Great acting, Funny

See it if You enjoy unusual conceptual shows

Don't see it if You need a large cast and a standard storyline

Ambitious, Quirky, Intelligent, Slow, Great staging

See it if Debate Society's latest atmospheric meta-drama Butler stages with panache on Jellinek's fabulous set but can't quite unite splintered script

Don't see it if Imaginative scenes & good acting (Sisto a standout) fails to engage us about time travelling tale of American dreamers Lots of style though

Clever, Enchanting, Great staging, Ambitious, Entertaining

See it if you want to see a visually inventive look at light and history seen through the eyes of two time periods. An intimate tale yet universal.

Don't see it if you aren't open to magical storytelling with two time lines operating at once.

Clever, Ambitious, Great staging

See it if Historical fiction. The play is uneven for sure but the overall quality of the work is great. Inventive company exploring the material.

Don't see it if You prefer standard drama with a single protagonist and obvious conflict.


See it if you'd like a provocative consideration of time, aspiration, progress, and stasis.

Don't see it if you're not able to overlook some gaps in the play's arguments

Clever, Great acting, Confusing, Quirky

See it if you like a well done show focused around the Chicago Expositions of 1893 and 1933. It is well researched and has interesting characters.

Don't see it if are looking for a rousing or profound work of theater, although it is engaging and not boring.

Confusing, Informative, Great staging

See it if you like pieces that have an historical basis.

Don't see it if you want a fleshed out story that fills in all the gaps. Left with too many questions.

Enchanting, Great acting, Slow

See it if you enjoy great acting, history or World's Fairs.

Don't see it if you don't like a slow pace, a meandering storyline or multiple timelines.

Ambitious, Confusing, Resonant, Thought-provoking, Slow

See it if you want to encounter a captivating & confounding & compassionate rumination on the precarity of artistic aspiration

Don't see it if you need narrative clarity

Clever, Disappointing

See it if You like lights and learning about interesting but not well-known historical figures.

Don't see it if You want your theater to be engaging and cathartic.

Great staging, Ambitious, Character study

See it if You want to see interesting characters in a historically acurate setting. Lighting is intriguing.

Don't see it if You want significant dramatic action.

Ambitious, Entertaining

See it if See if you are interested in history and family relationships. Beautifully staged .

Don't see it if If you do not like detailed , overly long and somewhat confusing plays.

Clever, Ambitious, Intelligent, Great staging, Good acting

See it if If you like plays about real events, interesting times and characters, historical situations. Not a great play, but worth seeing.

Don't see it if You want humor and songs to remember, and are not interested in great inventions, even if failed.

Ambitious, Clever, Disappointing, Indulgent, Confusing

See it if you are interested in Worlds Fairs, like shows that jump back and forth in time, want to see some good acting.

Don't see it if you are looking for a show with a message--the ending doesn't have a point. Don't see it if you are easily bored. Ultimately disappointing.

Cast & Creatives (15)