“Oxygen,” a new play written by a couple of world-famous chemists, is not about science but about scientists. It’s an essential distinction, one the playwrights hammer home effectively, focusing far more on the petty pursuits of credit-seeking egoists and less on high-minded ideas. As a marriage of science and history, the play certainly has value as a conversation piece and lubricant for academic discourse, but its characters never come to life as convincing or compelling human beings. As a result, neither the arguments nor the drama quite come off in this rather labored play and production.
The play comes from the minds of Carl Djerassi, a Stanford professor best known for inventing the birth control pill, and Nobel Prize-winning Cornell professor Roald Hoffman. The work is receiving its world premiere to coincide with the American Chemical Society Conference in San Diego, playing only for a week. Plans are currently in place for a BBC radio broadcast of the work and some European productions.
The work proceeds on a dual track, set in 1777 and in 2001. The present day story, completely fictional, involves a Nobel chemistry committee tasked with selecting the first recipient of a “retro-Nobel,” an award that will go to a pre-20th century event. The committee settles quickly on the 18th century discovery of oxygen as deserving the recognition, since it was the catalyst for the chemical revolution that followed, but that’s the easy part. Far more difficult is the determination of who actually deserves credit for this paradigm shift in the way we view the air around us.
This is where the historical scenes come in. The candidates for the prize include English chemist and Unitarian minister Joseph Priestley (Lou Seitchik), Swedish apothecary Carl Wilhelm Scheele (Jeff Anthony Miller), and, the most famous of the threesome, French scientist Antoine Lavoisier (Randall Dodge). In a fictionalized gathering that reflects on the Nobel committee’s issues, the three gather in 1777 to argue their case for credit of the important chemical discovery before the Swedish king.
The actors move back and forth between the dual settings, with the contemporaries who have been assigned to research a particular candidate embodying that historical scientist: Dodge, for example, plays womanizing Professor Bengt Hjalmarsson, who’s assigned to explore Lavoisier’s contributions, and also plays Lavoisier himself. The wives of the scientists also play important roles, particularly Madame Lavoisier (Erin Cronican), who was knowledgeable and handled many of her husband’s affairs. In the present day story, the chair of the committee, Astrid Rosenqvist (Diane Addis, who also plays Priestley’s wife), must attempt to reach a consensus while navigating the egos of her three male counterparts, along with a secretarial figure (Jennifer Austin) who turns out, quite usefully of course, to be a budding historian.
The performances here, under the direction of Bryan Bevell, are of inconsistent quality but certainly good enough to allow the play’s ideas to take prominence. Nobody is wholly convincing in both roles they play, but that’s as much a weakness of the writing as the acting. Seitchik provides plenty of pleasing comic timing as the grudge-bearing committee member Ulf Svanholm, and Dodge delivers a clarity of style in his historical scenes; Addis and Austin are also strong.
The design work is creative, with David Weiner making strong use of two-way mirrors for his set and Melanie Watnick finding a way to use clothing that can be both contemporary and period (particularly nice is a long coat that Addis wears). With both set and costumes, though, there are also elements that intrude, with partially blocked slides of historical images causing distraction, and with characters seemingly always getting dressed and undressed.
As far as its ideas go, the play asks a single question — What does discovery mean? — and answers it with three possibilities, each represented by one of the scientists: Is the discoverer the person who first created the experiment that brought out the needed facts (Scheele), the first person to publish the results (Priestley), or the person who first really understood their significance (Lavoisier)?
These considerations return repeatedly throughout the play but never really deepen beyond the questions themselves.
The writers would be well-advised to shed some of the amateurish clunkiness, which should be pretty easy to identify. Lines like, “Here she comes with the mysterious Ulla Zorn,” are completely unnecessary, and when a female character spouts, “I would help you, Carl Wilhelm, if I were not so ignorant,” the scientist/playwrights are not exactly presenting themselves as capable of crafting women characters despite their every effort.
The biggest problem, though, is that they haven’t cracked how to handle what should be the most theatrical scene of all, where the three historical figures demonstrate their discoveries with experiments before the king. Director Bevell clearly had no idea how to stage this, so he relies on the language alone, which unfortunately becomes bloated with pretentiousness as it tries to convert science into poetry.
The performers do what they can with it, but this work just never delivers dramatic excitement.