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LETTERS TO EDITOR
|A CurtainUp Review
To the playwrights and actors it has nourished and the theater goers who enjoy being part of the theater development process, Ensemble Studio Theatre is known simply E.S.T. The company's annual One-Act Play Marathon brings a rush of foot traffic to the westernmost region of Fifty-second Street where E.S. T. makes its home.
Now, in conjunction with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the First Light festival of new dramatic works exploring the worlds of science and technology has launched a month long presentation of workshop presentations and readings. Highlighting the inaugural of the three-year project is a full-scale production of Tesla's Letters written by Jeffrey Stanley and directed by E.S. T. founder Curt Dempster.
The name Nikola Tesla may not ring a bell, yet his contribution to science is with us every time we flick on a light switch. Even though the invention of electricity is associated in most people's minds with Thomas Edison, the "wizard of Menlo Park," it was Tesla's discovery of the principle of the rotating field which is the basis of most alternating-current technology and which truly ushered in the age of electrical power.
Tesla, a Serb (yes that Serbia!) born in Croatia was hardly a one invention wonder. From the time he emigrated to the United States with forty cents in his pocket to his death in 1943 he registered over 700 patents. Given Tesla's fascinating and mysterious personality and the tide of events sweeping the land of his birth, it's easy to see why Jeffrey Stanley was drawn to him as the central subject for his play.
With a quite different and highly inventive dramatization about Tesla at La Mama, The Lone Runner still fresh in my memory, I looked forward to seeing this new play with particular interest. Unfortunately, Tesla, whose story is timeless, is here mostly a hook for an agitprop political play. What's more, the political drama has been overshadowed by the greater and more current drama played out daily on CNN.
The premise is this: The year is 1997. Undaunted by the war between Serbs and Croats, twenty-seven-year-old Daisy Archer (Keira Naughton) an American graduate student arrives at the Tesla Museum in Belgrade. She wants to have a first-hand look at the letters of the scientist she's made her life's work. The museum's administrator Dragan Milincevic (Victor Slezak) has other plans for her. Her ambition and spirit dovetail with his scheme to subvert her mission into one he considers more important.
It takes the better part of the first act to set up this situation and pave the way for a dangerous wild goose chase across the Serbian-Croation border by Daisy and a young man she meets on the bus (Grant James Varjas). Some of the dialogue between Slezak and Naughton is quite funny, as when he tests her on her knowledge of Tesla and then comments on her answer with "Very good maybe you'll win prize in game show." But, as Tesla's story is overwhelmed by politics, the snappier script lines sink beneath speechifying polemics.
Mr. Slezak's speeches and one liners are convincingly accented. Ms. Naughton renders the outspoken gutsiness of the American abroad with flair. What both have in common is their naiveté. The only realist in the cast is Dragan's secretary and mother Biljana (Judith Roberts). The same can't be said for her accent which starts out so thick as to be almost unintelligible and gradually becomes so Anglicized you might think she had left Serbia and taken out naturalization papers.
Director Dempster wisely moves things along at a brisker pace during the second act, but the scientist who inspired this play remains disappointingly unexplored. It leaves this festival oddly stranded with a main event that has more to do with current politics than science and technology.
Tesla's Letters runs Tuesdays through Saturdays to April 25th. This leaves the Main Stage free on Sunday nights for the fetival's New Worlds workshop productions. Program one is in the past as this is posted but you can still catch the April 18 & 19th program 2, the April 25 & 26th program 3 and the April 21-24th play readings in the 6th floor theater. (Program 2: Cooking With Salt, Backing With Sugar by Salty Loeb, Thomas Through the Looking Glass by David Simpaticom, Small Fish by Susan Vitucci and A Brief History of Technology by Michael Louis Wells . . . Program 3: Excerpts from Maria the Jewess by Billy Aronson and Moving Bodies by Arthur Giron).