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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Breaking the Code
By Elyse Sommer
It was Turing's misfortune to have born when homosexuals still suffered cruel and misguided treatment, but the world''s good fortune that he was around to break that Nazi code, as well as to live long enough to apply his passion for numbers and ciphers and logical problem to lay the groundwork for the computer with his Turing machine. It was also theater goers hungry for at once intellectually challenging and yet entertaining dramas that Hugh Whitmore wrote Breaking the Code. And this summer it's the theater goers' good fortune that Barrington Stage has mounted a terrific and still relevant revival that will enthrall — even people (this writer among them) who tend to feel lost in detailed discussions of complex scientific and mathematical topics.
Whitmore wrote the play for Derek Jacobi who thanked him with a powerful performance both on screen and in the Broadway production. Given Jacobi's standing as one of Great Britain's greatest living actors, that hit-making performance might seem like an impossible act to follow. But that's not the case with Mark H. Dold's Alan Turing.
If the author and original actor could come to Pittsfield during this revival's all too limited run, they'd be right up there giving Dold the standing ovation he deserves. And they'd stay on their feet to applaud Joe Calarco's stunningly effective staging.
Dold is a riveting embodiment of Turing. He's got his tics down to perfection — the nervous stammer and absent-minded but compulsive nail biting. He fully inhabits the man's contagious exuberance and charm when exploring scientific topics as well as his conflicted relationship with his mother and the poignant and enduring connection with the school friend who died too soon. Best of all, he avoids the potential for Turing to come off as a martyr but captures the forthrightness that led to his unfortunate dealing with the burglary incident that ended up convicting him on a Gross Indecency charge.
If anything, Dold is even better than Jacobi was in navigating the shifts between analytical brilliance to the contemplative spirituality. The charm and exuberance that allows him to talk persuasively without stammering, is highlighted in a wonderful scene where he likens is best illustrated in a scene that has him explain computers by poetically comparing the brain and the gray porridge served to English boarding school boys. Dold's Turing is intense yet gentle, holding on to his gratitude for being part of the code breaking project even in the face of the government's sudden mistrust of him because of his private life. ("It took muh more than mathematics and electronic ingenuity to break the U-boat Enigma. It needed determination, tenacity —moral fiber, if you like. That's what made it so deeply satisfying. Everything came together there}. Nor does he express extreme bitterness about the horrendous punitive measures he was subjected to in order to stay out of jail.
The playwright's several mind-boggingly long monologues occasionally threaten to befuddle many audience members and slow down the drama. However, Dold's remarkable feat of memory wins the day.
Director Calarco heightened the dramatic impact of the play with a staging device that highlights both the technical subject matter as well as the characters who figure in his life between 1924 and 1954. With the help of scenic designer Brian Prather he has created a central raked platform, evocatively lit by Chris Lee, for the plot's forward and backward moving scenes.
The entire cast (7 besides Dold) is kept on stage throughout the two and a half hours. But they don't just sit in the chairs at either side of that platform ready to mount the center playing area as needed. The looks exchanged between them and Turing make them active contributors to the play's emotional arc. The basically bare bones stage is dynamically enhanced by a series of acrylic panels lit up to reveal mathematical formulas. The panels move and change and the formulas are sometimes expanded and projected onto the prosceniums framing the stage.
While this is unquestionably Dold's show. The actors playing the other people we meet as the play unfolds are all excellent.
Philip Kerr is a standout as Dillwyn Knox, the head of the Bletchley Park Enigma Code breaking team. His character adds most of the much needed humor. Deborah Hedwall gives a finely nuanced performance as Turing's mother Sara who he feels doesn't understand him but with whom he ultimately and poignantly connects after he comes out to her after his arrest.
Mike Donovan plays both Christopher Morcom, Turing's first crush and best friend and Nikos, a young Greek man with whom Turing has a vacation affair. Kyle Fable brings the right touch of sympathy to the persistent policeman Mick Ross. He makes it clear that he wishes Turing had been less forthright in admitting his involvement with Ron Miller, the young man he picked up in a bar, well portrayed by Jefferson Farber. Annie Meisels is engating as Pat Green, the colleague who would have married him even knowing his sexual bent. John Leonard Thompson is an apt lurking presence as the mysterious, censoring goovernment agent.
To some theatrical terminology I try to avoid but which warrant being pulled out of my no-no-phrase closet: Mark H. Dold's tour-de-force performance and Joe Calarco's seamless staging make this a must see production of a play that has stood the test of time.
If there was a Tony Awards organization for summer theater, it wouldn't be premature at the still not at the half way point of the season, to predict that Dold and Calarco as the most likely to win Best Actor and Best Director award.
Check out Currtainup's page linking to other science plays reviewed — here .