There are two kinds of questions posed by the Improbable Theater Company’s production of “Opening Skinner’s Box,” a stage adaptation of the 2004 book by Lauren Slater that describes ten famous and often flabbergasting psychology experiments. The show opens the 2017 Lincoln Center Festival.
There are the intriguing questions about human behavior that the experiments themselves attempted to address:
How do people learn?
How do people remember?
How much of who we are is our memory and how much of our memory can be altered through suggestion?
How willing are people to obey authority even when asked to harm innocent people? (The notorious Milgram experiment)
Why did no one help when Kitty Genovese was murdered, even though 38 neighbors witnessed it?
Then there are the questions about the show itself:
Why are all six members of the cast, both men and women, wearing nerdy bowties and jackets, when they don’t slip into white lab coats?
Why are the performances so mannered?
Why does the show stick so faithfully to the actual text of Slater’s book rather than dramatizing more?
What does one get out of this stage piece that one cannot get out of Slater’s book?
Why is the set just a box?
That last question is easily answered. The box is made of bungee cord and is surely meant to represent the “Skinner Box” that B.F. Skinner, the father of behavioral psychology, devised to shape the behavior of lab animals through the use of reward and punishment. They sometimes alter the box, so that it tilts a little, or bounces. It felt like an experiment in set design deprivation.
Theatergoers with an interest in psychology, but little background in it, would probably get the most out of Improbable’s show. I learned about most of these experiments in my college freshman psychology course. But we weren’t taught about Harry Harlow’s torturing of Rhesus macaque monkeys to study love. Nor did I know that Antonio Egas Moniz, the inventor of lobotomies, won the Nobel Prize!
Most eye-opening to me was the story told about Bruce Alexander’s Rat Park experiments, which demonstrated that rats only get “addicted” to drugs when they’re isolated and unhappy. “Addiction is not a biochemical fact,” (a cast member portraying) Bruce Alexander concludes. “It does not lie in the substance or the personality of the abuser. Addiction is a narrative; a story we’re told and we tell ourselves. And it s wrong.” So why hasn’t this discovery, which undermines the premise of the War on Drugs, led to major policy shifts? “Is it because according to Rat Park the war on drugs can only be won with better housing, better relationships, better lives?” asks Kate Maravan, who portrays the author Lauren Slater throughout the show.
Food for thought, for sure, but not exactly the sort of riveting experimental theater for which the 21-year-old Improbable is known. Think of “Opening Skinner’s Box” as more of a lecture, eccentrically illustrated.
Opening Skinner’s Box
Lincoln Center Festival
Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College
Adapted from the book by Lauren Slater; Directed by Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson
Cast: Alan Cox, Stephen Harper, Tyrone Huggins, Morven Macbeth, Kate Maravan and Paschale Straiton
Running time: Two hours, including an intermission.
Performances from July 10 to July 12.