Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Manhattan Project and Oppy

The other night we went down to the 14th Street Y to see a "science" play by Jack Karp called Irreversible, produced by the Red Fern Theatre Company.  We left with conflicting feelings -- what a terrific play, sharp, well structured, tightly directed.  With one huge flaw, and not one that could be put aside lightly:  the leader actor was horrendous.  Luckily, it was a play, not a film, so the next production of this play -- and Irreversible deserves another production -- need only cast a better actor as J.  Robert Oppenheimer and it will garner itself a longer run. 

Irreversible is a damn good play about the sons of bitches who made the atomic bomb.  It is about physics and math and those bright boys who get as excited as children as they discovered a means to commit genocide and paralyze the world with fear.  Central to the play is J. Robert Oppenheimer (called “Oppy” throughout the play, except for his mistress and his wife).  

Set in Los Alamos between 1944 and 1945, when great scientific minds gathered in a “secure location” akin to a prison to find a way to end the second world war sooner rather than later, the play uses five characters to represent the thousands of employees — scientists, military, administrators, not to mention wives — involved in the Manhattan Project and raise questions about the work that was done there.  This is a fine play, well wrought by playwright Jack Karp and directed by Melanie Meyer Williams.  The five characters Karp placed at Los Alamos, plus another important component back at Berkeley, gave him the bare necessities to tell the story, with a few extra names like Edward Teller and Enrico Fermi tossed in but not appearing — why confuse the issue, except as in the case of Teller, the originator of the incredibly dreadful idea of a “super” bomb that could out-do and out-destroy the atomic bomb.

Five of the six actors did excellent work.  One did not.  Irreversible had a hole in the middle called the lead actor, Jordan Kaplan, who is not capable of playing a mystery like J. Robert Oppenheimer.  Kaplan played the man like a middle school boy who'd received too much praise, over-acting up a storm.  He hit all his marks and knew all his lines (presumably).  He filled his performance with annoying physical quirks and breathy commentary.  He couldn’t even fake smoking with an electronic cigarette, or cough convincingly.
 Not to worry, though.  The rest of the cast was quite good:
Amelia Mathews, Josh Doucette, Hugh Sinclair, and Kaplan. Photo Credit Red FernTheatre Company 2015.
Dan Odell played a convincing Niels Bohr, a man of calm and confidence with important things to say, to teach.  Too much of it falls on deaf ears.
Hugh Sinclair as General Groves was as exuberant about the pyrotechnics as a little boy, representing the military that cannot trust someone with a foreign accent, yet cannot resist a big boom.
Amelia Mathews as the other woman in Berkeley was marvelous, very much of the 1940s and yet wild as a political and sexual radical.  Even as she entered the set in semidarkness to turn pieces of office furniture into a liquor cabinet for her apartment, she moved in character, a depressed, lonely, and drunken woman.
Laura Pruden as Oppy’s wife Kitty was an opposite type, sharp, understanding. Where Jean was danger and excitement, Kitty offered safety without claustrophobia — a scientist herself, she was caustic without being scathing.  Pruden engaged us as a mature, intelligent, and warm woman, just the sort a genius like Oppenheimer needed to balance his life.
Josh Doucette as Oppy’s younger brother Frank was the moral compass, he represented us.  Presumably not as smart as Robert, but more balanced and straightforward, Frank, with Kitty, tried to bring out Oppenheimer’s humanity, but J. Robert Oppenheimer sacrificed that to his god, physics.

Dan Odell as Niels Bohr and Jordan Kaplan as Robert Oppenheimer.  Photo Credit Red Fern Theatre Company.
When Kitty wants to go horseback riding, on the horses they’ve brought to the complex —horses their son had fed and named, that Oppy and Kitty had ridden on their honeymoon — Oppy says he’s moved them to a different pasture.  In fact, Oppenheimer sacrificed them to science — the new pasture was part of the first test of the “gadget” in the desert.  The play is harsh and truthful (which is not to say its history was all on the mark, but this is a play, not a documentary).  The star-scientist Oppenheimer was stripped of his charm to show that his particular genius would always put science — and himself — above it all, above humanity.  This portrait of Oppenheimer is rather like that picture in Dorian Gray’s attic.

Laura Pruden as Kitty Oppenheimer (Photo Credit Red Fern Theatre Company)
Playwright Karp employs visual foreshadowing to set up the frightening end of the play.  The military and scientific personnel viewing the first test of the “gadget” were advised to lie prone on the ground, and the actors lay face down in a circle.  This stage picture is echoed in the second act by the actors in white kimonos, their faces hidden by white masks, this time lying face up in the same circle surrounding the oblivious Oppenheimer.

The Red Fern Theatre Company’s production of Jack Karp’s Irreversible is a good piece of work that was so well written, directed, lit, and, for the most part, acted, that it could almost cover that gaping hole in the middle of the performance.  We let the lapse of casting Kaplan slide as we hope to see a future production as good as this one with someone in the central role who is worthy of it.
~ Molly Matera, signing off.   Despite Jordan, see this and hear the play before it closes on the 29th.

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