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Review: ‘Opening Skinner’s Box’ at Lincoln Center Festival is Absorbing, Stimulating and Refreshing

By Joshua Rosenblum, Contributing Writer, July 12, 2017

The famous American psychologist and father of radical behaviorism B. F. Skinner (1904-1990) is considered to be the most influential psychologist of his time. His work is the springboard for Lauren Slater’s 2004 book Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century.

In experiments, for which he invented the operant conditioning chamber (the “Skinner box” of the title), Skinner used reward and punishment to increase or decrease a behavior in lab animals. The controversial results had unsettling implications for free will and the ability to condition humans, turning Skinner and his work into a lightning rod for much of his professional life.

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In both Slater’s book and in its stage adaptation by Improbable theater company (presented by Lincoln Center Festival) Opening Skinner’s Box, Skinner is the first of ten prominent psychologists whose experimental work is examined. Slater herself is a prominent presence in the play; as she puts it, “Great psychological experiments amplify a domain of behavior or being usually buried in the pell-mell of our fast and frantic lives. Peering through this lens is to see something of ourselves.”

Scene from ‘Opening Skinners Box;’ photo: Topher McGrillis.

It’s unusual to adapt a work of non-fiction for the stage — theater is largely about story-telling. Slater, however, says that it’s the stories behind the experiments that interest her primarily, and this could have been a useful touch point for the play. Improbable’s adaption, however, is almost too faithful to the book to make the most of this idea.

Though the staging is imaginative, much of the book is rendered verbatim as spoken narrative. Six very game and versatile performers (three men and three women), dressed in suits and bow ties (and sometimes white laboratory coats), fluidly assume the roles of the succession of psychologists, their subjects and colleagues, peripheral characters, including Slater and her husband. The action takes place in and around a large wire-frame cube, whose edges are at times pulled and distorted to indicate drug-induced hallucinations. Directors Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson of Improbable have the characters do slow-motion pantomimes, mimicking lab animals, and other visually entertaining movement. Inventive use is also made of minimal props, like the pieces of fabric that depict the forming of synaptic connections between the neurons in a subject’s brain.

Although the characterizations fly by rapidly, some prove to be moving and memorable. Perhaps the most notorious of the experiments depicted are those conducted by Stanley Milgram at Yale in the early 1960’s. Milgram, wanting to test the limits of his participants’ willingness to obey an authority figure, had his subjects administer a series of apparently painful shocks to a “learner” who was strapped into a chair. Unbeknownst to the subject, the “learner” was a confederate who was not actually receiving any shocks.

Milgram found that 65% of his participants would continue to administer shocks up to the level of what they believed were 450 volts if told they were required to continue. Slater tracked down some of the original Milgram subjects, one of whom was at the time a closeted gay man. When interviewed by Slater, he spoke movingly of his realization that staying in the closet was another form of compliance, and that though what he learned about himself via the experiment was traumatizing, it ultimately gave him the courage to come out, once he saw how vulnerable he was to authority.

Many of the experiments depicted in Opening Skinner’s Box remain equally relevant today. Leon Festinger field-tested cognitive dissonance, exploring how stubbornly people cling to their beliefs even when they are repeatedly disproven by facts. The phenomenon of addiction was given a revelatory exploration by Bruce Alexander, whose work indicated that addiction is more circumstantial than physiological: it turns out what we need to fight drug abuse is “better housing, better relationships, better lives.”

Scene from ‘Opening Skinner’s Box;’ photo: Topher McGrillis.

The horrifying Kitty Genovese murder, in which nary a witness pitched in to help in a prolonged rape-knifing case, turns out to have been part of the “diffusion of responsibility” phenomenon, as examined by John Darley and Bibb Latané. Elizabeth Loftus ended up receiving death threats for her work debunking so-called “recovered memories” (“There are children who tonight while you sleep are being raped and beaten, and no one will believe them,” rants one agitated letter-writer.) And Slater poses the somewhat unsettling question of how different a lobotomy procedure is from a modern psycho-pharmaceutical like Prozac in terms of how it alters that “vital cherished spark” that is the essence of our humanity.

All of this is continually fascinating, even if it sometimes flies by in a blur of characterization and narrative, without much time to process one game-changing psychological revolution before the next begins. I wouldn’t say Opening Skinner’s Box was a gripping evening of great theater, but I would say it’s fully absorbing, mentally stimulating, and refreshingly unlike anything I’ve seen in recent memory.




Opening Skinner’s Box produced by Improbable Theater Company, presented by the Lincoln Center Festival at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, 524 W. 59th Street, through July 12.  Adapted from the book by Lauren Slater. Directed by Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson; set design by Laura Hopkins; lighting design by Nigel Edwards; sound design by Adrienne Quartly. Cast: Alan Cox, Stephen Harper, Tyrone Huggins, Morven Macbeth, Kate Maravan and Paschal Straiton.


Cover: (l. to r.) Alan Cox and Paschale Straiton in ‘Opening Skinner’s Box;’ photo: Topher McGrillis.


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