Monday, August 12, 2013

Einstein: An Absent-Minded Narration

Richard Kent Green and Sheilagh Weymouth as Einstein and
Elsa surrounded by reporters. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Einstein, by Jay Prasad. Directed by Randolph Curtis Rand. Starring Richard Kent Green. Currently running at Theatre at St. Clement's through August 25th, 2013.

As Act One of Jay Prasad's bioplay Einstein closes, the title character declares to the whirling electrons of reporters circling the nucleus of his press conference (sorry, couldn't help myself; carry on), "Do I think I'm the greatest scientist the world has ever produced? Does anyone doubt it?" The answer, unfortunately, is yes.

All biopics and bioplays face the same problem: they're supposed to stay true to the facts, even when they don't make a particularly compelling story; even when the ending disappoints. What's disappointing here is that Albert Einstein, who revolutionized physics and the way we look at the universe, does have a compelling life story - but Prasad hasn't presented it in a particularly compelling manner. Following Einstein's life from his humble beginnings in a patent office in 1905 through to his death fifty years later, Prasad's play gives us everything without enough editing down to give us a narrative with a through-line - a series of steps down an inevitable path, to the building of the man, the genius, the legend. So Act One in particular is peppered with scenes, not of young Albert on his scientific discoveries, but of him standing with old school friends, with his soon-to-be wife, with his former teacher, and narrating to each other flashbacks to respective youths (including an arbitrary use of accents for Mileva's parents, when no other scene or character sports them), however irrelevant they are to the supposed story being told. There's all too much telling going on here, and not nearly enough showing, and a lot of it feels irrelevant.

Act Two picks up some steam, as World War Two fast approaches and Einstein must contend first with the antisemitism and Nazis in Germany, and then with the moral quandaries of the Manhattan Project in the U.S. This section is the strongest, both in writing and directing, as the through-line becomes clearer. Here, too, Richard Kent Green grows significantly more comfortable in the role of the venerated scientist, seeming to feel more himself as the established genius and forerunner of his field, the pipe-clutching God of Physics with gravitas, than he does in Act One as the as-yet-unproved young and eager Einstein before relativity. In Act One he was chiefly the absent-minded genius, and while the absent-mindedness was clear, the genius was less so - he lacked the fire, the drive to know, to understand, to explain. I believe the revered expert of Act Two, but not the young untamed firebrand of Act One.

All in all, the direction by Randolph Curtis Rand is adequate if not innovative. While not managing to transcend the play's weaker moments (including some particularly awkward lines such as "I can't believe this is happening, all because I came up with that formula E=mctwenty-five years ago!"), he does bring vitality to the more engaging scenes of actual conflict. The discussion between Einstein, the established leader of science, and Lemaitre (Steven Bidwell, in perhaps my favorite performance of the show), on the possibility of a new theory of an expanding universe, is compelling and haunting. Einstein's admonishment to Lemaitre, "Science fiction must not be mistaken for science," rings alarmingly similar to the one he received from Forster, when he himself was a young scientist developing relativity. The loud ticking of a clock which follows his outright rejection of Bohr's new theories of quantum mechanics, ones which he would later learn were correct, underscores the passage of time that is perhaps leaving Einstein lagging behind. Our hero has become a judgmental God, uninterested in the preaching of any new prophets.
Steven Bidwell and Richard Kent Green as Lemaitre and Einstein.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

As the story winds down, post war, post atomic bombs, the narrative loses focus again, going for a jaunt with a hamfisted portrayal of J. Edgar Hoover and an unnamed FBI Agent, surprisingly played as more malicious and cartoonish than even the earlier cameo by Adolf Hitler. One longs, more and more, for some sort of parallel to be drawn between Einstein's life and the discussions of math and physics, but they are far too often independent and abstract discussions, neither offering us quite enough insight into either Einstein the man or Einstein the scientist. Instead, one leaves a little dissatisfied, as the man quietly drifts away on a hospital bed, still unknowable, beyond our grasp.

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