Hollywood, 1940. As Hitler devours Europe and America inches toward war, a remarkable technology that could prove invaluable to the U.S. Navy is invented by… a sexy movie star and an avant garde composer? Though it sounds more than a little far-fetched, it’s actually a true story, and the subject of Elyse Singer’s multimedia play Frequency Hopping.
Staged at 3 Legged Dog, the elegant production deploys a small army of robotic instruments (drums, gongs, eight player pianos) and lavish 3D holograms to accent a rather reserved tale about sexual attraction sublimated into an impressive breakthrough. The alluring Erica Newhouse plays actress Hedy Lamarr, an Austrian immigrant who gained insight into military technology from her first husband, arms dealer Friedrich Mandl, before fleeing the oppressive marriage and her country. In Hollywood, she began an unlikely collaboration with her neighbor, the somewhat frustrated composer George Antheil, played here by Joseph Urla, who some may recognize from The Wire.
Singer focuses in on the forbidden love between the two married but restless souls as they simultaneously flirt and invent. The title takes its name from their innovation, which was intended to make radio-guided torpedoes harder for enemies jam. It was a bit ahead of its time, and the fruit of their labor was largely shrugged off by the military, but after the patent expired the Navy used it during the Cuban missile crisis, and it eventually became the basis for Wi-Fi.
As Singer makes clear in a director’s note, the notion of “changing frequencies to avoid enemy detection” is used here as a metaphor for the ways “we send secret codes to each other” in intimate relationships. But because the relationship between Lamarr and Antheil remains stuck on a repetitive loop of repressed longing, the metaphor ends up overworked. Happily, Urla and Newhouse have the skills to keep things afloat, and Singer’s crisp dialogue gives them fun stuff to play with. Joshua Ford’s score, as executed by Eric Singer’s robots, creates an edgy atmosphere that might be difficult to conjure elsewhere – the same goes for 3LD’s Eyeliner technology, which doesn’t get the full-spectrum work out it did in Charles Mee’s Fire Island, but adds an eye-pleasing touch nonetheless.
Frequency Hopping continues through June 29th at 3LD Art and Technology Center [80 Greenwich Street @ Rector Street]. Tickets cost $20.