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|A CurtainUp Review
Einstein, A Stage Portrait
If you didn't understand Albert Einstein's famous E = MC ² formula before you go to see Einstein, A Stage Portrait, you probably won't understand it any better when you leave the American Jewish Theater. But you will have a clearer picture of the man behind the twentieth century's favorite allusion for genius.
John Crowther has directed himself in an endearing performance as the great physicist and Willard Simms, a specialist in dramas based on the lives of historical figures, has provided him a fact and anecdote filled script to work with. The dramatic device allowing the play's single character, Einstein, to hold forth on science, music, fame and the meaning of life, is an informal meeting of people so that he can "set the record straight" about the paradoxes and the myths surrounding his work and beliefs. The time is 1946 when Einstein is in his sixties. The place is his Princeton home and the invited "group" is, of course, the audience. In order to help the "doctor-professor" accomplish his aim, the play emphasizes the personal life of this complex public man--his wit and charm, the effect of celebrity upon his relationships and persona--peppering the mix with a dash of insight into the scientific thought process.
This focus on the personal, like pop journalism, always entails the risk of taking away from what's really important--in this case, Einstein's role as a great humanist and brilliant physicist. Thanks to the playwright's meticulous research which included interviews with colleagues and family members for the anecdotal material, and Crowther's low-key, never hamm-y performance the portrait unveiled before us is that of an engaging flesh-and-blood man with a puckish charm, a man who happened to be a great humanist and a brilliant physicist--a twentieth century icon whose mail reaches him with no more of an address than "Relativity Himself."
Skillfully compressing his bounty of research material, the playwright roams over the landscape of Einstein's life and his work--from his youth as a chronic underachiever, to Nobel prize winner at forty-one, to forced exit from Nazi Germany and life at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Studies. Along the way he shares personal reminiscences, tells jokes ("Laughter keep us from taking ourselves too seriously"), recites limericks, nd utters truisms--the latter often tempered with regrets. For example, he knows that his belief that ""we must all try to work to our full potential--and go beyond it if possible" has taken its toll of his personal relationships. The only true diversion in his life has been music--especially Mozart who he considered to be a true genius.
Setting the record straight also covers some of Einstein's eccentricities, like not wearing sox or suspenders or getting hair cuts because "all that is a waste of time. " It also addresses his pain over the association of his work with the atom bomb and the famous 1939 letter to President Roosevelt calling his attention to the possibility that the Germans were working on an atomic bomb. While the play's Einstein declares "I would never have written that letter had I known the Nazi could be stopped" Gerald Horton in a recent book, Einstein, History, and Other Passions,> points out that not only did this impress Congress sufficiently to give physicists more resources, but that this new generosity rubbed off on other sciences.
While the emphasis on Einstein the man does not diminish his importance as a world figure, the play would have gained had some sharper examples of his wit been included. As is true of many talented scientists, Einstein had a gift for expressing himself metaphorically and except for a bit at the beginning about i"i the temple of science there are many mansions" and "I will never believe in an accidental universe" much of the selected wit and wisdom relies on nuts and bolts quotes rather than the more colorful. Another point: Since the audience is asked to act as Einstein's partners, these patient listeners should be given a chance to interact with the doctor-professor for a post-performance question and answer session. His monologue could easily be cut by at least fifteen minutes to accommodate such an exchange.
Eric Warren's set design, adapted for this production by Robert L. Smith reminded me somewhat of the living room in >Old Wicked Songs reviewed earlier this week. In this case the old Paisley shawl was draped over a chair instead of a piano, and instead of the piano as the centerpiece, there's a chalkboard for the Professor's formula scribblings. Both serve their characters well so this is an observation, not a criticism.
Einstein: A Stage Portrait is currently produced by Pearl Productions and Edmund Gaynes and hosted by the American Jewish Theater. It had an American tour in the mid 1980's and in 1995 was presented in Italian in Milano, (where Einstein's family lived for a time when he was a young student) and the Spoleto Festival--in both instances under Crowther's direction).