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A CurtainUp Review
Louis Slotin Sonata
By Aimee Zygmonski

You can't run from time, but you can run out of time

--- Louis Slotin
On May 21, 1946 at the Pajarito Canyon Site, part of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, Louis Slotin was demonstrating to a colleague how to do a "crit" test for an atom bomb. Two halves of a plutonium core (dubbed "Rufus") were placed together in a half of a beryllium shell assembly. To gauge at what level the reaction between the core and the shell would be explosive, the halves of the shell were brought as close together as possible without touching. Army-issued wooden spacers were used to separate the halves, but Slotin was convinced the blocks provided an inaccurate reading of activity. He therefore used a flathead screwdriver as a spacer between the shelves. A flat head screwdriver -- its flat end being no more than a millimeter wide.

Slotin's hand slipped in manipulating the screwdriver. The shell halves connected. The eight other men at the test site said they saw a blue glow. Nine days later Slotin was dead, having recveived the bulk of the radiation from the ensuing nuclear reaction.

So begins Louis Slotin Sonata, by Paul Mullin, at Ensemble Studio Theatre, a collaboration between Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, as part of "First Light 2001," a festival exploring the worlds of science and technology through theater.

The play follows the nine days leading to his death, replaying the fatal slip over and over again. These replays are interspersed with readings fromresearch papers and government telegrams; also visits from God, Einstein -- and Slotin's ghostly friend, Harry Daglian who was killed from a radiation accident a year before.

William Salyers' Slotin is a man quick of wit and quick of word. He vividly connects with the audience with a delightful, breezy manner. This makes it all the harder to watch him die slowly and painfully.

In his agonizing last days, Slotin develops an affection for his nurse Annamae (endearingly played by Amy Love). Their scenes together offer a touching glimpse into the inherent dangers of being a nuclear physicist. "I don't see what's so amazing about something that can do so much damage," Annamae meekly tells Slotin. And, as Slotin's doctor reads out a laundry list of Slotin's ailments (arms covered in blistering sores, green bile, intense stomach pains), the audience may well wonder with Annamae whether discovery was worth the price it exacted.

Mullin uses a variety of theatrical devices to present Slotin's story:
  • The doctor reads the opening paragraph from a published case study on the accident as Slotin is attended to by Annamae.
  • Slotin has morphinated dreams in which he asks if God destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki with no regard for innocent life as he did Sodom and Gomorrah. At one point he cries that it was really a question of "Hiromorah and Sodomasaki!"
  • Near the end of the first act, the patient imagines himself as a WW2 Normandy invader in the guise of a muscled African American coming face to face with the Nazi death camp doctor, Josef Mengele. (This severe connection between horrific Auschwitz experiments and nuclear discovery seems far-fetched and rather damaging towards the image of these scientists).
Director David P. Moore has fit the script's scattered and overlapping scenes together into a streamlined production that moves at a fast-clipped pace. Dialogue is revisited and repeated in the format of a classical sonata (sometimes by Slotin, sometimes via cameos from Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project).

At times there are too many devices at work, so that some of the more realistic and simple conversations feel out of place. The "Neutron Craze" dance number at the top of Act II, complete with scientists in lab coats singing of the joys of thermodynamics, though amusing, doesn't add anything to the overall arc of Slotin's story.

Thankfully, the play organizes itself toward the end, with a particularly stirring scene in which Slotin's friend and confidant Phil Morrison must convince Slotin's father to let them autopsy his son's body (forbidden by Jewish custom). This is followed by the pathologist reading the autopsy report as Israel Slotin (played with humor and tenderness by Joel Rooks) says Kaddish for his dead son.

The hardworking ensemble plays three to five characters each, effortlessly slipping from one to the next. I've already mentioned Amy Love's endearing performance as Annamae . Allyn Burrows as Morrison, is another standout, providing the necessary compassion in a world where science and research tend to override consideration for human emotions.

When presented at Los Alamos on March 24 to an auditorium of scientists and theatergoers alike, the play was criticized by some of the lab veterans who believed that it was a disservice to the Manhattan Project. However, a discerning audience member can choose to filter out the confusing additions of neutron dances and Mengele references, and look at the piece objectively. Slotin's story is worth telling. Rather than a disservice, it is a homage to the many scientists who dedicated their lives to learning more about nuclear energy, and unfortunately, also suffered mortal consequences.

by Paul Mullin
Directed by David P. Moore
Cast: Allyn Burrows, Bill Cwikowski, Richmond Hoxie, Ezra Knight, Matthew Lawler, Amy Love, Joel Rooks, and William Salyers
Set Design: Rachel Hauck
Lighting Design: Greg MacPherson
Costume Design: Amela Baksic
Sound Design: Rob Gould
Running Time: 2 hours, with a 15 minute intermission
Ensemble Studio Theatre, 549 W. 52nd St, New York, NY 10019,
.Wednesday - Saturdays and Mondays at 8pm, Sundays at 3 pm, Tickets are $19 and can be reserved by calling 212-247-4982
Opening April 9 and running through April 28, 2001
Reviewed by Aimee Zygmonski based on 4/7/01 performance

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