During World War II, Nazis kept a concentration camp prisoner alive because he invented — and very likely could produce — the world’s first hand-held, four-function calculator. That may sound like the fanciful premise of a paperback potboiler, but it’s the true-life story of Viennese-born inventor Curt Herzstark, who designed his Curta mechanical calculator while a prisoner at Buchenwald. Unfortunately, this stranger-than-fiction episode has been distilled into a respectfully intelligent but only fitfully gripping drama, “Intelligence-Slave,” a two-act play by Kenneth Lin now having its world premiere at Houston’s Alley Theater.
Events unfold within the confines of Kevin Rigdon’s economical set, a cramped room in the bowels of a Billroda salt mine that the German military has turned into a munitions factory. As the play begins, at some vaguely defined point late in WWII, Herzstark (Andrew Weems) continues to work on his calculator while managing the factory, under the watchful eye of the increasingly impatient (and, by act two, mountingly desperate) camp commandant, Hermann Pister (Todd Waite).
Herzstark has actually finished his prototype — a fact he hides from Pister, because he fears he will be eliminated, along with the other factory workers, once he ceases to be useful as an “intelligence-slave” (a Nazi term for prisoners with exploitable expertise). But Herzstark finds it difficult to hide his breakthrough from two newcomers: Bruno (Chris Hutchison), a prisoner who talks his way onto the factory workforce and into Herzstark’s confidence; and Finn Frey (Steven Louis Kane), a 14-year-old Hitler Youth loyalist and math prodigy assigned to assist Herzstark — whether Herzstark wants the assistance or not.
Director Jackson Gay strives mightily to sustain a sense of claustrophobic tension, a mood that sound designer Pierre Dupree dutifully enhances with loud and portentous clockwork ticking during scene-dividing blackouts. But the play itself comes across as incom-plete and imprecise, often announcing relationship shifts that should instead be stealthily dramatized.
Weems underplays to potent effect, speaking volumes with expressive body language — his hunched, meekly subservient stance suggests just how much Herzstark has had to demean himself to remain alive — even while revealing flashes of pride as an innovative inventor. Kane is repeatedly tripped up by his role’s vertiginous mood swings. Still, he and Weems bring a surprising degree of emotional truth to a heavily symbolic scene involving the creation of a mousetrap that is meant to say something about the indomitable spirit of survival.
Waite, Hutchison and James Belcher (as a war-weary businessman) take full advantage of their sporadic opportunities to shine in supporting roles.