In the theater, the age-old fantasy of a happy marriage between art and science has given us some truly great plays about the lives of scientists: Brecht’s Galileo and Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, to name just two that have set the bar quite high. Unfortunately, Jay Prasad’s Einstein, staged by Variations Theatre Group at the Theatre at St. Clement’s, is not among them.
Prasad’s script suggests a reasonably solid grasp on historical and scientific data, but it lacks structure and subtlety, along with any real ideas about how a biography can be turned into theater. Instead—as if it were attempting to write the equivalent of a cinematic biopic for the stage—it proceeds by naive chronology and the occasional flashback through its protagonist’s life, with nothing motivating the movement between scenes except the passage of time.
The loose semblance of a plot first depicts Einstein as a floundering graduate student, then a neglectful husband, then an upstart academic threatening the scholarly establishment, then a grandfatherly Great Man of History confronting the most pressing political questions of his day: Zionism, Nazism, McCarthyism, and science’s complicity with atomic warfare. Along the way, characters and plotlines keep getting introduced and discarded haphazardly.
Einstein repeatedly dwells on the soap-operatic details of its subject’s personal life, then loses its audience in a welter of technical information and modern physics theorems that has as much dramatic interest as a Wikipedia entry. The ideas themselves aren’t unexciting; it’s just that the playwright hasn’t found any compelling way to dramatize them.
Directed by Randolph Curtis Rand, the production itself is rudimentary and amateurish—a kind of community theater realism. Scenically it consists mainly of three rotating flats with bookshelves and books painted on them, every bit as two-dimensional as the script. Conspicuously anachronistic props abound: plastic Ikea-style trash cans; disposable wind-up cameras; zippered suitcases that look closer to the 1980s than the 1910s.
Under these conditions, it’s a struggle for the actors to bring life to this unrewarding material, and the performances that result are uneven at best. In sum, Einstein is a long evening at the theater, one that sometimes seems to expand like the universe in the big bang theory that the character Georges Lemaître introduces in the play’s second act—that is, interminably.