This is a play about history, science, philosophy, obscurity, celebrity, but mostly about change, the kind of revolutionary change that defined the modern world for better and worse, and how it sprang from the imagination of a single man.
Richard Kent Green is an excellent Einstein. He is the only actor who does not play more than one part in this performance. In a subliminal way this reinforces our focus on him as a singular figure at the center of his own self-conscious history; around him other people swirl, come into existence and disappear; they are the actors in his life.
In 1962, Thomas Khun wrote a book called “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” It would be considered an important book if it had done no more than plant the meaning of one word in our minds – paradigm.
There are changes all the time but only extremely rarely is there a change in paradigm, an entirely new, more accurate explanation of reality. Einstein’s discoveries, conducted in the laboratory of his mind, changed the paradigm.
The play opens with Einstein sitting on a park bench, wishing he could have a conversation with Newton, centuries his predecessor. Instead he gets his good friend Besso, who appears out of nowhere, wearing a straw hat and holding a cane, sunny in disposition, chaplinesque in his movements. He cares about Einstein. One off-handed comment transforms Besso into an accidental muse, giving Einstein the kind of insight he might have hoped for from Newton.
The choreography is subtle and impressive. Ideas dance in and out of Einstein’s mind. Conversations among three people about a fourth who stands silently by, outside of the action, are overheard by this person we can tell from his or her facial expression. It is an effective way to get across that conversations people have about us will eventually reach us, if not the actual words, then the feelings they express.
Even more impressive, is the moving image of what it means to become famous, sparingly and beautifully rendered. An Einstein solitary in his thought until his theory wins popular attention, is suddenly set upon by a flock of reporters who swarm around him like pigeons. He drops the bread crumbs of a few words, an answer to a question, then moves downstage and they reassemble around him, the center of their temporary universe.
The lighting is also to be complimented, and the venue, a theatre within a church – what better for an exposition on such fundamental subjects – the structure of the universe, light, matter, energy.
Grant Kretchik, who plays Besso, demonstrates admirable range when we meet him later as the atomic scientist Neils Bohr, urging a reluctant and ultimately uncooperative Einstein to address a gathering of younger physicists who look up to him. His own theories have led them in a direction he finds unpalatable – quantum mechanics – which crudely described posits a different structure at the atomic level than is evident thanks also to Einstein’s theories in the large-scale universe. Einstein will have none of this or the uncertainty principle on which it is based. For Einstein, if a theory is probabilistic that is because the answer has not been found. He stubbornly persists in his search for a unified theory, as he will until his death. Repeatedly, he will reject the work of others.
This is not a play just about science. It’s about a human being at a certain point in history; as much as it is about the changes he effected, it is also about things that he could not change, and about irony.
The irony is that Einstein, the man, while expressing great empathy and love for humankind could, by his own admission, not love individual human begins. He felt passion only for science and causes. He is also caught up in history – the persecutions of Nazi Germany and McCarthyism; the fateful letter to Roosevelt that saves the western democracies but unleashes the possibility of what he calls a chain reaction of death, his Faustian bargain, a pacifist, father of the atomic bomb.
All of this is here and much more as the years projected above the action unfold – 1905, 1919, 1927, 1932, 1942, 1945 and 1955. The actors are all remarkable. They reappear creatively in new parts to the delight of the audience, demonstrating their skills and advancing the story. Take Jill Catherine Durso who plays the mistreated Mileva, Einstein’s first wife, whose work on the mathematics of his early theory went forever unrecognized, the mother of his first daughter in whom Einstein expressed no interest, maligned as below him by his parents, cheated on by him as will be his wont throughout the play, also with his second wife – this actress not only plays Mileva, but the women with whom he has dalliance, an interesting concept.
If you have an interest in Einstein, history, science, imagination, humanity, modernity, human failings, genius, or how great acting can bring all of this to life, see this play. I can’t help but end with a paraphrase of my favorite Einstein quote, even though it is not in the play: “I don’t know which weapons will be used to fight World War III, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”