Two psychologists conduct research together in their office. What may sound dull is transformed into the wholly compelling plot of Lynne Kaufman’s “Two Minds.” The captivating nature of this narrative — based on a true story — comes from the fascinating personalities and unique partnership of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the two psychologists portrayed in the play.
Kahneman and Tversky spent years working together in a close partnership until Tversky passed away from metastatic melanoma in 1996 at the age of 59. They researched the way that logical decision-making works, including how individuals gauge risk-taking. Their work contributed immensely to the fields of psychology as well as economics, for which their research earned Kahneman the Nobel Prize in 2002, after Tversky’s death.
While their work makes up a significant portion of the dialogue, the play is really about the two psychologists’ unique partnership and friendship. “Two Minds,” which is directed by Robert Kelley at The Marsh in San Francisco, explores the unusually close and dependent relationship that Kahneman and Tversky formed over years of conducting their research together.
Both Kahneman (Jackson Davis) and Tversky (Brian Herndon) have big personalities, which differ greatly from each other — while Tversky was often considered the life of the party, Kahneman was more reserved. These differences form the basis for great banter. Davis and Herndon excel in their roles, effortlessly capturing the chemistry between these two lifelong friends. Seeing as they are the only two actors of the production, the effectiveness of the narrative relies on how well they play off each other. They do this exceedingly well, with their dialogue bouncing back and forth speedily in continuously gripping banter.
The relationship between Kahneman and Tversky becomes clear within minutes of the actors’ onstage interactions. They often discuss their work while joking, finding immense humor in their research and each other. This invites the audience to laugh along with them and feel included in this conversation between close friends. Based off of the abundance of audience laughter throughout the play, Davis and Herndon’s dynamic successfully conveys the real-life hilarity.
Kaufman’s script deserves substantial praise as well. It is incredibly well-written, strikingly conveying a relationship so unique that a precise description defies words. As the plot moves forward, their friendship begins to experience significant tension due to new job positions at different universities creating a physical difference that they aren’t used to.
As the fun banter evolves into clashing tension, the writing seamlessly conveys the distance growing between them in an effectively subtle way. The mounting tension sneaks up on the audience, taking them by surprise after they have settled into the humor-filled banter of the earlier scenes. The tension between Kahneman and Tversky — based in physical distance and conflicts over Tversky receiving individual credit for their shared work — is heartbreaking to watch.
While a moment of arguing over whether to use the word “reiterate” or “repeat” garners laughter due to its resemblance to the familiar, friendly banter of early scenes, it ultimately furthers the relationship’s rising pressure. The audience feels a rise of uneasiness as things become worse between Kahneman and Tversky, which serves as a testament to Kaufman’s ability to make you care so deeply about the fate of this relationship.
The play’s events lead to the eventual death of Tversky, which is revealed at the beginning, for anyone who has no prior knowledge of these men and their work. His illness is what brings the two of them to full reconciliation, adding a bittersweet element to the tragic diagnosis.
“Two Minds” gives a visceral look into the interweaving of two great minds, whose work was groundbreaking and whose relationship was just as — if not more — fascinating.
“Two Minds” runs through June 9 at The Marsh in San Francisco.