A lot of science fiction's greatest works deal with the question of immortality: Do we really want to live forever? And would we still be human if we no longer aged or died? A new stage play called The Future, imported from Britain to New York, deals with this question in a very personal way, via the most urbane of settings: the dinner party and its clash of personalities. Over the course of several years, we follow a group of people who are taking Senexate, the new wonder drug that halts aging. Update: Added full disclosure below.
As medical technology lengthens lifespans and new breakthroughs promise further longevity, it's a particularly timely moment to look at considerations our ancestors could only imagine. Narratives about immortality — both the search for it and what it would mean to possess it — have consumed most cultures for thousands of years, but we are on the precipice of medicine and technology that could actually push death off indefinitely.
In The Future, living forever is at hand, and its first test group are characters we meet in the play: they are our generation's children, as one of them mentions going to the London Olympics when he was six years old.
There are the party hosts, a mild-mannered engineer and his wife, an "antique bookshop" manager who wants a baby; a haughty stockbroker and his haughty French fashion-industry wife; and the "politically correct" couple, a history teacher and his wife, who works "with the environment." All of these characters play to type unflinchingly, meant to be exaggerated caricatures of the sort we easily recognize.
Playwright Andrew Harrison is also a medical doctor, and the science of aging and experimentation is unpacked early. Harrison's firm grounding in the science of aging means that the possibilities the play suggests come to seem all too plausible. Every reward and repercussion of Senexate is meticulously thought-out and viable. It's hard not to watch the action and think: this is what will happen. Soon.
The same couples gather for each scene, with the plot having progressed at an interval of four years in between scenes. It's a storytelling device that works well, especially in the second act, when the world has changed massivley because of the drug and its societal side effects have become more apparent. Now in their late twenties, the men are old high school friends and in the beginning of the play, their conversational topics are mundane: whether or not to have children, debates about love and money, old memories and past slights. The first mention of Senexate is met with disbelief. But by the next act, most of the characters are taking it.
Science fiction lurks at the outskirts of The Future initially. The play is set in a sleek modern living space marked with statues and art that signify the past: a Buddha here, the bust of a hero there, Michaelangelo's The Creation of Adam on the wall. The characters wear contemporary dress that often seems to reflect their mood. So much wine is consumed it feels like a seventh character. All feels familiar until the dialogue indicates a growing dystopia, and the strained relationships we see convey a world vastly altered.
After the first excitement over immortality has faded, the problems become apparent. Harrison's medical mind has focused on the statistical and moral realities. Population control is a pressing, global issue — and soon an authoritarian system has fallen into place that limits the birthrate. Jobs and workers become stagnant with no new vacancies, no career ladders to climb. Without children to raise and faced with the possibility of perpetual life, the old-fashioned institution of marriage starts to break down. People in developing countries do not have the same access to Senexate, and the drug company that developed it has assumed massive proportions. There is talk of blood tests, genetic ID cards, and a vaccine that will prevent the drug from working forever, if you violate the rules.
It's unsettling stuff — and all the more so for being discussed believably, in posh surroundings. Much of privileged humanity is keen to "adapt" to the new way of things in exchange for their own longevity, giving up having children to live forever. Adaptation is mentioned so often, it implies we're to become a different sort of species without death from aging. Doubters become converts, unable to face getting older while their friends stay young. Enthusiasts turn against the drug, not so happy with their chosen occupations and partners once the idea of infinity is considered.
The characters swing between extreme reactions convincingly, with a strong cast anchored by Stuart Williams' engineer, who tries to keep everyone happy with puppydog earnestness. Derrence Washington embodies all the potentials Senexate has to offer, as the lone brash American who likes money and fast cars. And Fergal Titley plays a laid back hipster-hippie teacher, who now can't qualify to work at the few special schools set aside for children.
The women are given less forgiving roles: Catherine Gibson's Susan can only imagine personal fulfillment through having a baby, Ilinca Kiss's elegant, icy Beatrice oozes stereotypes of Frenchness like a perfume and Claire Sanderson's Hannah goes on vaguely "working with the environment," serving as a foil to the other characters. Her best line is to observe that she's busy after Senexate, because "Most people didn't care about climate change when it was only going to affect their children, but they care now."
The narrative relies on a good bit of exposition to tell the parallel story of the world outside and to explore some scientific principles; it can be unsubtle at times, but the dialogue is effective, and we get attached to everyone's fate. It's also tricky to pick a side; there's a sense of ambiguity as to whether those who do or do not "adapt" are making the right decision. Is it better to keep to fading, beloved traditions and live for the present, or embrace an uncertain, evolving immortality? What would you choose?
Grounded in realism, The Future is also ideal to see with friends who might not be overt science fiction fans, as the story's other questions — about open relationships, job satisfaction, economics and ethics are as present and well-explored. Harrison (who answered readers' questions the other day) doesn't punish his characters for either wanting to be Gods or stay mortal, but he does leave us wondering which state is really preferable — whether we'd swallow the pink pill, and who we might become if we did.