Why is it so hard to produce good plays about science? For every Arcadia, with its elegant illustration of the second law of thermodynamics, or Galileo, with its clash of natural and human laws, there are many more dreary Einstein bioplays or disease-of-the-week weepies. Every year, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and Ensemble Studio Theatre sponsor an annual festival of plays devoted to science and technology, but the results are typically middling, at best. Most shows—not simply those devoted to J. Robert Oppenheimer—bomb.
One play the Sloan Foundation sensibly rejected is Sweet, Sweet Motherhood, now running at Here, a collaboration between playwright Jeremy Kareken and Princeton prof Lee M. Silver. According to a program note, the foundation termed it “outrageous” and “disgusting.” Perhaps they should have just called it “bad.” Structured as a pas de deux between a genetics professor (Michael De Nola) and a mouthy undergraduate (Caroline Cooney), it violates poetics, propriety, medical reality, and several university ethics regulations. Junior Shelley arrives at Professor Stein’s office hours and persuades him to serve as her thesis advisor by railing against what “these fucknuts call correctness.” That’s not all. “Sell me” on molecular biology, she threatens him, “or I flash you my tits.”
Despite that provocative offer, Stein accepts her. Shelley reveals her plan for a senior thesis—to have herself inseminated with chimpanzee sperm and birth a chimp-human hybrid. The play then devotes several scenes to exploring, in the most superficial way, the consequences of this action. But lest all this talk of morality make the play seem serious-minded, equal attention is paid to Shelley’s desire for her professor. Though he’s 30 years older and decidedly smarmy, the sound of his voice alone can bring her to orgasm. Humanzee aside, the play is itself a hybrid, a shallow scientific inquiry crossed with an implausible love story. It should never have been birthed.
Compared to Sweet, Sweet Motherhood, Snoo Wilson’s Lovesong of the Electric Bear—presented by the Potomac Theatre Project at the Atlantic’s Stage 2—is a much healthier offspring. A play about the life of AI pioneer Alan Turing, the show boasts a surer sense of character, a superior command of language, and respect for audience smarts. It’s likely the cleverest script narrated by a talking teddy bear on record. But that isn’t saying much. The play opens with Turing (a sympathetic Alex Draper) on the verge of death, having poisoned himself with a cyanide-dipped apple—a neat trick he picked up from Disney’s Snow White. But before he can expire, childhood chum Porgy Bear (Tara Giordano) arrives and takes him on a tour of his life and times.
As that description suggests, this is a twee riff on the typical bioplay structure, and while there are a few well-written scenes, such as Turing’s interaction with an American engineer, the whole is cutesy and formulaic. While Sweet, Sweet Motherhood dumbed down genetics to an improbable degree, Lovesong takes a somewhat more sophisticated approach to the science it concerns, introducing concepts such as Bertrand Russell’s mathematical oversights and the mechanical difficulties of early computing. But Wilson typically ignores the technical in favor of the personal. And the personal, when rendered in gooey storybook fashion, doesn’t compel very much. Let’s hope that playwrights’ petri dishes produce some better culture next time.