Toronto-based Harvard philosophy graduate David Egan certainly jumped in the deep end when he decided on an incident involving philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karl Popper and Bertrand Russell as the basis of his first play. Doubling his jeopardy, the play instantly brings to mind another three-character play, experienced playwright Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen.” It’s to the credit of Egan and the premiere production of his play that the results, as seen at close quarters in a room of the Spring Lawn mansion at Shakespeare & Co.’s 63-acre Lenox home, are as persuasive as they are. Clearly, however, “The Fly-Bottle” isn’t for the tired businessman.
In 1946, Popper was invited by Wittgenstein to speak at Cambridge U.’s Moral Science Club, during which an irascible, over-excited Wittgenstein constantly heckled Popper as being “wrong, wrong, wrong” and eventually threatened him, wielding a poker. Wittgenstein’s champions deny the incident happened at all, leaving it open to question exactly what did occur. But the scene takes place in the play, more than once, as the incident and other aspects of the lives and philosophies of Popper, Wittgenstein (both Viennese) and Englishman Russell are presented in differing versions a la “Rashomon.”
Most of the play takes place at Cambridge in the mid-’40s, though there is one flashback to the Hague in 1919, and it’s all too obvious that the three great philosophers were impossible men. The final scene is a fantasy, of a warm, humane meeting with Russell, that Wittgenstein envisions while at the movies. He’s quickly disillusioned by reality.
Along the way there are numerous noisy arguments among the men, Wittgenstein in particular being confrontational as well as quite sure that nobody understands him or even wants to do so. Meanwhile, Popper refers to Wittgenstein’s “nonsense” and “sloppy thinking,” and “truth” and “honesty” are discussed.
The two Austrians also speak of what Vienna was like before and after the Great War wrought massive changes. This leads to talk of the horrors of World War II and Europe’s “mad dictator.” Russell mourns, “It’s all so bloody useless” and there’s additional talk of the senselessness of war, the shallowness of politics, etc.
Naturally, a lot of weighty words are bandied about, with Wittgenstein explaining the play’s title by stating that philosophers are flies in a bottle unable to get out and sealed off from the world.
Fortunately, playwright Egan leavens the weightiness with humor (though Wittgenstein is terminally humorless) and the dialogue is remarkably lively. There’s a most entertaining moment when Russell discombobulates Popper by telling him that he gave up philosophy for sex with Lady Ottoline Morrell.
What Egan has not managed to do is clarify the different philosophies of his three characters, which may not be possible to do in 90 minutes. Nor has he truly created fully rounded human beings, as Frayn did in “Copenhagen.” Nevertheless, “The Fly-Bottle” is a considerable achievement for a first-time playwright.
As for the production, it is propelled by the vital performances of Dave Demke as Popper and Michael Hammond as Wittgenstein, complete with Viennese accents. Dennis Krausnick’s Russell isn’t quite up to their standard, lacking their strong vocal and dramatic techniques, though he still has his moments. His English accent, however, isn’t up to par.
Despite the tiny acting area of the Spring Lawn Theater, sandwiched between two audience sections, the three actors and director Tina Packer have managed to give the production movement, though the play would be far better served in a real theater, with air conditioning.