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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Neither the name Vern Thiessen or Fritz Haber is likely to instantly ring a bell with most Americans. Yet Thiessen is one of Canada's leading playwrights and Einstein's Gift, already nabbed the Canadian equivalent of a Pulitzer (Governor General's Award for Drama) several years before arriving on Theater Row for its New York premiere. As for Haber, like the better known Albert Einstein, he was a Nobel Prize winner (in 1919). Though college chemistry students will be familiar with the Haber Process which led to the development of nitrogenous fertilizers, they are unlikely to know much about his personal life which makes for a thought provoking story, imaginatively told by Mr. Thiessen and staged in an immensely dramatic manner by Ron Russell.
If it seems odd that what is essentially Haber's story is titled as if it were another in a growing list of Einstein related plays, rest assured that Einstein's Gift is not a misnomer. To be sure, the famous and much quoted physicist's name has more box office appeal than Haber's and the Epic Theatre's production has been astutely scheduled to coincide with the centennial celebration of Einstein's "miracle Year" and the 50th anniversary of his death -- but Einstein is also very much a critical character in this drama.
The beloved physicist's chief function is as narrator and only occasional participant in the central story of Haber's rise and fall. While he and Haber were friends (though mostly through correspondence and never really close), it is what the two men did and didn't have in common that gives Thiessen's play its edge: Both were Jewish and influential scientists but philosophically worlds apart (Haber was an ueber-patriot, convinced that scientific ideas must be useful whereas Einstein was a dedicated pacifist who believed that " the role of the scientist is to think, not to tell the future."). Both saw their ideas ultimately fall prey to the law of unintended consequences.
It is thus the second word of the title that imbues it with its ironic double meaning. In a rather tender (some might say, hokey) scene near the end , Einstein gives Haber a concrete gift that's neatly wrapped in a box (to tell you what it is would be a spoiler -- yet Jewish audience members are likely to know what it is well before the box is opened) but the word's German definition -- poison -- is what illuminates the tie that binds these men. As Haber's Nobel prize winning discovery of Zyklon B ended up being put to horrific use in the German extermination camps, so Einstein too ended up giving the world a horrendous gift of poison, the atom bomb.
Thiessen's script adheres to the general facts of Haber's story -- the pragmatic conversion to Christianity when he was still in his twenties, his career and marriages and the eventual and inevitable realization that though he regarded himself a German above all else, to the Germans he would always be a Jew. As noted in a postscript to the published play, the playwright has leaned heavily on Aristotle's dictum: "History is what happened; drama is what may have happened."
Adept dramatist that he is, Thiessen has managed to superimpose his own scenario on facts, taking liberties with the timeline and actual events, but without distorting history. His script is brought to fascinating life by John McDermott's imaginative and somewhat surreal set. It's highlighted by a curving metal staircase and giant blackboards at either side of the stage and stunningly lit by Elizabeth Gaines and Jeremy Morris-Burke.
Fortunately, Asif Mandvi, an actor who continues to evince remarkable versatility both on and off Broadway (from his one-man show Sakina's Restaurant, to his amusing peddler in Oklahoma, to a turn in On The Razzle) has accomplished the difficult task of giving the hard to like Haber enough old-world charisma to make us better understand and sympathize with his arrogance and other complexities. It's of course much easier to like Einstein, especially as played with gentle geniality by Shawn Elliott.
Melissa Friedman, who was so compelling as Hannah Arendt in Epic's Hannah and Martin, is once again impressive as Clara Immerwahr, the brilliant colleague Haber marries but loses to his blind patriotism and ambition. The playwright's use of a Chekhovian gun to set the scene for her suicide is one of several instances (fortunately, not many) of a too transparent reliance on an obvious theatrical device. Sarah Winkler's animated, youthful performance as Haber's second wife Lotta contrasts well with Friedman's more intense Clara.
There's a nice symmetry to the two marriages in that each relationship begins with the wife-to-be persuading Haber to dance (wife #1 ignores his protest that "a man is either a good chemist or a good dancer" and wife #2 banishes his middle-aged aura of a man who's dancing days are over). These scenes also clarify why a program for what is obviously a drama and not a musical includes credit for a dance coach.
James Wallert is persuasive as Haber's long-time assistant Otto, and Glenn Fleshler is chilling as the Nazi Bernhard Rust. Fleshler, like the other excellent ensemble players, is double cast.
One of the more obvious departures from historic fact is evident during Einstein and Haber's first meeting, in which Thiessen translates their word duels via postcard exchanges into an actual bit of swordplay. He also uses a real uncle of Haber's who was killed by a Samurai warrior in Japan in 1874, to develop a running anecdote into a leitmotif -- the final version of the much repeated but always altered anecdote ends with the Samurai and Uncle Ludwig exchanging weapons and each ending up killed by their own weapons. A chilling warning to Einstein from the no longer blind to reality Haber.
Despite some scientific jargon this is a science play that is easily accessible with no knowledge of chemistry or physics required -- and never a dull moment.
For a review of Epic Theatre's last play, Hannah and Martin, go here.
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