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A CurtainUp Review

"Look around, Oppie. There's nothing left. And this is only the outer edge of the blast zone. God knows what it must look like at the bottom of that crater."
"What did you think it would look like?"
"I don't know, I guess we were so busy working, I didn't have time to think anything."

(L-R) Jordan Kaplan, Amelia Matthews, and Josh Doucette (Photo: Red Fern Theatre Company)
Between 1943 and 1945, some of the world's top scientists worked feverishly in a remote New Mexico town, secretly racing to create the atomic bomb. Their success changed the world—for better or worse—forever. Jack Karp's Irreversible focuses on the lead scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Jordan Kaplan) in order to explore the motivations of the man who later described his legacy by quoting Hindu scripture: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

The characters of Irreversible, presented by the Red Fern Theatre Company with Melanie Moyer Williams directing, are driven by patriotism, morality, or curiosity, but most also have something personal at stake.

Oppenheimer's younger brother Frank (Josh Doucette) is trying to win the elder's respect, while his wife Kitty (Laura Pruden) wants her husband and life back. General Leslie Groves (Hugh Sinclair), the military lead for the project, is duty-bound to deliver the requested weapon to his superiors.

Of course, we know how the story ends, so the question is not what will happen but whether it was worth it. Today, as the nuclear age still provokes anxieties, it's sensible to wonder if the bomb made us safer or brought humanity closer to self-evisceration. Karp gestures towards that question by asking if the choices that brought us into this era were correct.

In trying to make a point that's relevant today, many of the specifics of World War II get stripped away. The conflict tends to be described more generally, while the Nazis and Japanese are mentioned sparingly. Instead, Karp focuses on human nature: how curiosity and passion drive us to the unthinkable, how personal obligations distort our sense of morality, and how something before our eyes can affect us more than the abstract thought of anything on the other side of the world.

These are fertile themes, but they aren't foregrounded any more clearly by generalizing the War. Rather, this fosters an approach where the characters are reduced to polar attributes.

In the category of older men, General Groves is the hawk to the dove of Neils Bohr (Dan Odell); turn to the females and you have Oppenheimer's mistress Jean Tatlock (Amelia Matthews) representing selfish, libidinous desire, opposing the self-sacrificing Kitty's practical devotion. Things are more ambiguous when it comes to the brothers Oppenheimer, but by play's end, their relationship comes to pit science and morality against each other.

This makes for a tidy schematic, but it feels reductive given the richness of these historical figures. Robert, for example, is motivated by his passion for science, a point he emphasizes with excessive frequency ("Nothing is more important than physics," "I don't need friends, I have physics," etc.). The character quickly begins to feel robotic, and later attempts to give him more depth are a tougher sell.

Despite this, Karp and Williams effectively convey the murky intermingling of circumstances that create nuanced situations, if not individuals, through well-choreographed scenes where Kaplan quickly moves between separate interactions, with his response to one person doubling as an instigation to another.

These scenes have a welcome momentum in a generally slower show, and they bring out the best in the cast by playing the characters' contrasting traits directly off one another.

Scenic designer Andrew Mannion and lighting designer Marie Yokoyama do a nice job utilizing the 14th Street Y's theater, configured with a thrust stage surrounded by seating that's only two rows deep, physically evoking the close quarters of Los Alamos. The theater's generous vertical clearance comes to suggest the rise of a mushroom cloud, as lighting effects behind a large scrim offer further distortions of space and scale.

Irreversible is thought provoking, and it's worth noting that a portion of the proceeds support the science learning nonprofit Iridescent. However, but the play feels like more of a structured exercise in moral thought than a fleshed out drama, eliciting an intellectual response more than an emotional one. In the end, you can't help but feel like a show dealing with a subject this sensitive and intense should be able to do both.

Irreversible by Jack Karp
Directed by Melanie Moyer Williams

with Jordan Kaplan (Robert Oppenheimer), Josh Doucette (Frank Oppenheimer), Laura Pruden (Kitty Oppenheimer), Hugh Sinclair (General Leslie Groves), Dan Odell (Dr. Neils Bohr), Amelia Matthews (Jean Tatlock)
Scenic Design: Andrew Mannion
Costume Design: Rebecca L. Welles
Lighting Design: Marie Yokoyama
Sound Design: Andy Evan Cohen
Properties: Deb Gaouette
Violence Consultant: Galway McCullough
Production Stage Manager: Sammee Wortham
Assistant Stage Managers: Sandra Twumasi Bonsu and Josh Stillman
Presented by the Red Fern Theatre Company
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission
The Theatre at the 14th Street Y, 344 East 14th Street (at First Avenue)
Tickets: $25; or 212-352-3101
From 3/12/2015; opened 3/14/2015; closing 3/29/2015
Performance times: Thursday–Saturday at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm, with an additional performance on Monday, March 23, at 7 pm
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 3/20/2015 performance
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