Florida Studio Theatre takes a an unexpected look at Albert Einstein.
In a classic science-fiction short story, an inventor is tinkering on a time viewer that can show any scene in the past. He sees, among other things, Lincoln and his wife murdering somebody in the White House. He winds up destroying his machine. Mark St. Germain’s “Relativity” is similarly disillusioning. His imaginary time window is now open at Florida Studio Theatre.
Einstein is what it shows you. But not the Einstein you’d expect.
The Einstein we all know and love is the whimsical, wild-haired saint of theoretical physics who sticks out his tongue and plays the violin. On top of his mad math skills, he’s a veritable quote machine. For example: “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.” Einstein said it, we believe it, and that settles it, right? Maybe not.
In St. Germain’s theatrical thought experiment, the cuddly Einstein we think we know is a deliberately crafted persona. The “real” Einstein (played by Robert Zukerman) put cold equations above humanity—including his own family. The play posits that he gave his daughter, Lieserl, up for adoption and concealed her existence with a cover story—a lie that she died in infancy of Scarlet Fever. Why? Because children are distracting, hmm? Einstein discovered that he did his best work alone—and wanted to keep it that way.
These revelations unfold in Einstein’s man cave near Princeton University in 1948. Plucky reporter Margaret Harding (Ginger Lee McDermott) flies under the radar of Einstein’s housekeeper Helen Dukas (Sally Bondi) and gets him to agree to an interview. Einstein signs a right-of-refusal contract. The talk begins—and quickly gets personal. He answers all the reporter’s rude questions anyway—and presumably refuses to let his responses ever see print.
In a nutshell, the interview goes like this:
Reporter: Why did you abandon your daughter?
Einstein: To do my work. The cold equations of physics trump the human equations of life.
The play draws deliberate parallels between the selfish physicist and selfish artists. Einstein was a great scientist—and a lousy father. Dickens was a great writer—and an adulterer who abandoned his family. St. Germain’s Einstein says the selfishness isn’t a coincidence. It’s what made the greatness possible. You just can’t be a great man and a good man at the same time. Needless to say, the reporter has a different opinion. So, the journalist and the physicist go round and round—and there’s nothing like a good fight.
McDermott and Zukerman deliver engaging performances, with comic cameos by Bondi as the authoritarian housekeeper. Director Jason Cannon keeps his eye on the issues of the heart underlying the war of ideas. Donna K. Riggs costumes evoke the stuffy world of America’s post-W.W. II intelligentsia. Bruce Price’s set speaks of Einstein’s jackdaw mind and indifference to fashion. It’s gripping stuff—with a few surprises I won’t spoil.
The ideas in the air and the skeletons in Einstein’s family closet make for compelling entertainment—though it sometimes feels like too many ideas and too many skeletons. Some judicious trimming would help. The personal connection to the American P.O.W.s in Hiroshima also seems like a stretch. But let A-bombs by bygones.
As to the human equation, St. Germain lets you draw your own conclusions on the good man vs. great man debate. There’s no debate about his Einstein character, though. The playwright’s window in time shows a very clear picture. The man you see really isn’t Dr. Nice Guy. The Einstein of the play may be closer to the truth. But I much prefer the madcap absent-minded professor of popular culture. How do you …
Uh, sorry to cut this short, but I need to run outside.
I think Neil deGrasse Tyson just stole my car.
IF YOU GO
“Relativity” runs through July 2, at Florida Studio Theatre’s Keating Theatre, 1247 First St., Sarasota. Call 366-9000 or visit floridastudiotheatre.org for more information