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Review: Thinking Outside (and Inside) B.F. Skinner’s Box

This structure does indeed stand in for the boxes used by the behaviorist B. F. Skinner, wherein food was systematically proffered and denied to rats. But as the show progresses, the box becomes a suggestive multitude of other things.


Stephen Harper, center, in “Opening Skinner’s Box,” based on Lauren Slater’s 2004 book about psychological experiments in the 20th century.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

These include the cages and laboratories in which variously famous and infamous psychologists conducted their experiments on the workings of the mind. But as the show progresses, the box asserts what might be called a mind of its own.

It bends; it quivers; it expands and shrinks. And in the process of this show, directed by Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson, it becomes an unexpectedly affecting metaphor for the ways we baffled humans try to interpret and contain life’s onslaught of empirical data.

Ms. Slater’s book melds subjective and objective points of view, while suggesting that the two are not mutually exclusive. It is steeped in Ms. Slater’s hungry curiosity about how and why our species behaves as it does.

The book follows her research into the history of psychological experimentation (which included interviews with academics who later complained they had been misrepresented). It is also a memoir of sorts, which considers these investigations’ impact on her home life and shifting worldview.

Ms. Slater is embodied by Kate Maravan, who steps forward now and then to offer personal context, beginning with an account of a childhood encounter with a baby raccoon (given delicate-pawed life by Paschale Straiton). Like everyone else in the cast — the others are Alan Cox, Stephen Harper, Tyrone Huggins and Morven Macbeth — Ms. Maravan is also required to morph into an array of lab rats, literal and otherwise, and their manipulators.

The ensemble members all wear ill-fitting suits, in the tradition of intellectuals who can’t be bothered with fashion, and bow ties. You may associate such neckwear with Bill Nye, the Science Guy, of children’s television. And “Skinner’s Box” can be seen as an adult variation on Mr. Nye’s popularizing approach to academic subjects.

The production covers much ground, some of it filled with land mines, with blithe smoothness and friendly accessibility. The cast members’ British accents and diffident manners help provide (to American ears, at least) a polite, cushioning distance from accounts of some projects that might objectively (or do I mean subjectively?) be described as inhumane.

The most emotionally engaging of these accounts centers on Harry Harlow (Mr. Cox), who separates infant monkeys (the rest of the cast) from their mothers to define the nature of filial attachment. Depictions of his ever more bizarre and cruel use of his monkeys are interwoven with references to his increasingly unhinged personal life.

These are reflected by Mr. Cox with a countenance that drifts by degrees into lost abjectedness. By the end of the sequence, he has assumed the aspect of one of his own motherless primates.

That astute use of an actor’s gift for conveying the unspoken is rare in “Skinner’s Box.” The production is short on the transformative stage magic that I associate with Improbable, whose work includes the enchanting “70 Hill Lane,” about a homey encounter with a poltergeist, and a hypnotic staging of the Philip Glass opera “Satyagraha.”

Still, there are moments when the show’s sensory elements — Nigel Edwards’s artful lighting and Adrienne Quartly’s insinuating sound design — cohere in such a way that a box made of bungee cords seems to become our very own imperfect, indispensable door of perception. That may be a less than scientific form of cognitive manipulation, but it is more efficacious than a dozen well-argued treatises.

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