As it traces the fraught relationship between Albert Einstein and lesser-known Nobel Prize winner Friedrich Haber, Vern Thiessen’s “Einstein’s Gift” offers a satisfying rumination on genius, war and the danger of remarkable ideas. Like Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen,” Thiessen’s play spins the passions of two scientists directly responsible for WWII killing machines into larger metaphors about the life of the Western mind. Compared to the delicacy of its Tony-winning antecedent, the play is a bit heavy-handed, but Thiessen puts compelling arguments in the mouths of both great men.
Haber (Aasif Mandvi) led an infamous life — he was a Jewish German who helped invent the poison gas the Nazis used in concentration camps — and his torment gives the show its center. He emerges as a stubbornly patriotic man who needs to believe his quest to help others will not be perverted by a hateful society. In one painful scene after another, however, he realizes Germany never forgot his discoveries could be weapons, nor did it forget he was Jewish.
By now, of course, Haber’s Nazis-are-evil revelations can’t help but feel shopworn. Thiessen deepens the conflict, though, by pairing him with Einstein (Shawn Elliott), who constantly argues that his colleague’s ideals are misguided. Debates over the value of imagination and the purpose of national pride crackle with urgency.
The play’s most lasting point, however, comes when Einstein turns to address the audience, stepping out of time to remind us that his opinions are basically moot. No matter what they believed or what cause they supported, both men’s insights were used for destruction. It was Einstein, after all, who helped create the atomic bomb. While we might hear this assertion a few too many times, the play gains depth in making it.
Overall, director Ron Russellstruggles to elevate his staging beyond a parade of static talking heads, but Einstein’s solitary moments are lyrically conceived. The design, especially John McDermott’s set of spiraling staircases and imposingly large chalkboards, seems specifically tailored for these glimpses into his psyche.
The opening scene, for instance, features Einstein staring over the audience while a group of anonymous, lab-coated technicians stands behind a transparent black scrim, raising their goggles in choreographed unison as the theater floods with light. This stylized dumb show suggests a nuclear explosion in both the theater and the genius’s mind. Such elegant images do not, however, set the tone for the rest of the production, which generally opts for standard realism.
Some of the cast, particularly Melissa Friedman as Haber’s tormented wife and fellow chemist, give rich perfs nonetheless, but Mandvi and Elliott stumble. Both take a single trait — Einstein’s absent-mindedness, Haber’s gruffness — and use it as an acting crutch.
In the emotional final moments, when the two men must try to forgive themselves and each other, Elliott gets lost in his loopy hand gestures, while Mandvi spits every line with the same hard emphasis.
These perfs keep the writing’s emotional life far more distant than its intellectual concerns. But the ideas in “Einstein’s Gift” can sustain a production, leaving us to consider why the cost for brilliance is so often an endless number of lives.