Reviewed by Judd Hollander
The theatrical group Improbable takes a look at the struggle to understand the human condition, as well as its strengths, weaknesses and limits in Opening Skinner's Box. Based on Lauren Slater's book of the same name, the show looks at a number of significant psychological experiments undertaken over the years, as well how those experiments, and the guiding forces behind them, have been regarded by the passage of time.
The stage work also uses the character of Slater (Kate Maravan) as a sort of guide through the different studies in question. The show recently having had its North American premiere at the Gerald Lynch Theater as part of the 2017 Lincoln Center Festival.
Of the various experiments discussed, the one which feels most topical today is Leon Festinger's exploration of what he called " cognitive dissonance". A process where a person refuses to change their beliefs on a subject, even when confronted with overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They instead codifying those facts to reinforce their own convictions. Put in terms of today's political landscape, with so-called "fake news" abounding, it's where one would prefer to place blame on a conspiracy orchestrated by their opponents, rather than acknowledging that at least some of the problems originate with their own actions and perceptions.
Other issues examined include "diffusion of responsibility". Where the bigger the crowd witnessing a particular incident, the more likely it is those watching will wait for someone else to make the first move in response. Also explored is the almost pathological need people have to feel important, which is why many people continually check their twitter and email accounts, looking for that one message to validate their self-worth. A process B.F. Skinner called "intermittent reinforcement". Also shown is the continual blind trust most folks have for authority figures, particularly when it comes to making decisions. This ceding of power thus removing those following along, at least in their own minds, from any personal responsibility. A point Stanley Milgram proved in his experiments requiring testers to give what they thought were painful electric shocks to their subjects.
Where Opening Skinner's Box really takes off is when it gets away from the nuts and bolts of the different experiments and shows Slater's own attempts to explore the ramifications of these endeavors. Slater, a psychologist and author, providing a fresh perspective on the groundwork that came before. Such as speaking with some of the participants in the Milgram experiment and discovering the emotional scars they still carry. Probably the most riveting section of the entire show is a conversation with Elizabeth Loftus regarding her studies on recovered memory therapy, and how fallible such recollections can actually be. An issue that's still hotly debated today.
At times, Slater also recreates a specific experimental process herself, albeit with her own particular spin. Such as showing how simple it was for her to get prescription medicine, simply by claiming she was hearing voices. This being a variation on an experiment by David Rosenhan, who showed how easy it was to get committed to a mental institute. Ironically, when Slater speaks to one of Rosenhan's critics regarding her findings, he's quick to offer a bit of cognitive dissonance of his own. He dismissing her efforts as unscientific, rather than admit to flaws in the diagnosis process both she and Rosenhan uncovered.
Closely linked with these different studies are questions of moral and ethical boundaries, and what happens when these boundaries are crossed. It's interesting to note that none of those profiled saw their actions as having the potential to cause harm. Yet while many of their methods remain standard practice today, some of these people are now considered pariahs by their peers due to the way they carried out their examinations.
Yet despite all the possibilities Opening Skinner's Box has to offer, the show often feels very dry in its delivery. Interesting to be sure, but one could get just as much information from perusing Slater's book. A choice which might actually be better in this case. For when reading, one is able to absorb information at their own pace. Instead of being shown one experiment after another machine gun style on stage, with no time for the audience to get to know the different characters. Including Slater. Another problem is that each of the experiments depicted here could easily be a play on its own. With at least one of them - The Milgram experiment - having been.
Something else that really doesn't work is when the different actors portray various animals; i.e. monkeys in a cage, or laboratory rats. Their attempts to do so look rather phony on the surface and end up being more of a distraction than anything else. In the same vein, the various pops, bells, whistles, etc. used as sound effects come across more as an annoyance rather than something integral to the story.
The piece is adequately directed by Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson. Unfortunately they're hamstrung by the basic framework of the show, which has them going from point "a" to point "b" and so on, ad infinitum, for each of the experiments shown. It's a process which becomes repetitive all too quickly.
Maravan is good as Slater, a person seeking answers and insights on the various experiments, for reasons both professional and personal. The rest of the characters do well in the various roles, several coming off as almost righteous in defense of their work, while others demonstrating a clear desire to understand a specific aspect of the human psyche. No matter where their findings lead or how people may be affected by them.
Opening Skinner's Box contains a wealth of material concerning the practice of scientific analysis, but winds up more intellectual curiosity than engaging theatrical experience. Give this one an "A" for effort, but the entire piece could do with some serious reworking should the show's creators want to take it to the next level.
Featuring: Alan Cox, Stephen Harper, Tyrone Huggins, Morven Macbeth, Kate Maravan, Paschale Straiton.
Opening Skinner's Box
Presented by Improbable
Adapted from the book by Lauren Slater
Directors: Phelim McDermott and Lee Thompson
Set Design: Laura Hopkins
Lighting Design: Nigel Edwards
Sound Design: Adrienne Quartly
Gerard W. Lynch Theater at
of Criminal Justice John
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission
Presented on July 10-
12, 2017 as part of Lincoln Center Festival