'Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie'

Helmer Daniel Sullivan has assembled a topflight cast and goodlooking Geffen Playhouse production for Alan Alda's "Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie."

Helmer Daniel Sullivan has assembled a topflight cast and goodlooking Geffen Playhouse production for Alan Alda’s “Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie.” But the play itself rarely rises above the level of a junior high instructional filmstrip on Great Men & Women of Science. Alda, who captured Richard Feynman’s personality quite nicely in Peter Parnell’s “QED,” can’t seem to get a handle on the woman or her work, nor combine them into a viable dramatic construct.

For a while we’re back with Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, in the hagiographic 1943 biopic’s idyllic marriage of minds of stolid, professional Marie (“Breaking Bad”‘s Anna Gunn, in thick Polish accent and chrysanthemum hairdo) and avuncular Pierre (John de Lancie, as lovably cranky as the late Andy Rooney).

They exclaim about the glowing potential of pitchblende until the same runaway wagon that mowed down Pidgeon rolls again, relegating the estimable de Lancie to the sidelines to light his cigar whenever Marie remembers him, which is less and less as years go by.

Act one’s freshest element is the collision of brilliant, wimpish physicist Paul Langevin (Oregon Shakespeare mainstay Dan Donohue) and neurotic, abusive wife Jeanne (Sarah Zimmerman). Their clashes, escalating from needling to outright violence, offer a vision of scientists’ personal life distinct from the Curies’ warm mutual respect. Donohue is especially effective as his puppydog longing for Marie visibly intensifies his frustration at home.

But somehow, while we’re out at intermission, Curie discovers she’s mad about this nebbish, jumping into some PG-13 canoodling fully clothed.

Not only can we not comprehend what she possibly sees in him, but Alda has this tower of self-possession suddenly go into conniptions at the thought of Jeanne’s finding a mildly compromising letter. Still, as Marie dithers through her personal life and becomes enfeebled by radiation poisoning, she manages to keep processing enough pitchblende into radium to garner not one but two Nobel Prizes.

Things really go to hell, for text and characters alike, once the unlikely lovers’ affair becomes public. Alda gets in a few passing slams at fundamentalist Christians trying to rob Marie of her good name and blame her for the Franco-Prussian War; for her part, she turns on a dime to rail at her increasingly spineless lover for caring about what Jeanne might say or publish.

The role simply fails to make sense from moment to moment or throughout its arc, notwithstanding Gunn’s always sincere intelligence. Nobels in hand, in full command of her righteousness, Marie is never convincing as persecuted protofeminist victim, though her triumph over bigotry is evidently what Alda wants to leave us with. Eventually everything just sort of stops, lacking any kind of elegantly shaped resolution.

Fine actors like Hugo Armstrong and Natacha Roi are stuck mouthing exposition in nothing parts, while Zimmerman is too restrained in the juiciest one. With Marie constantly described as meticulous and controlled, letting crazy Jeanne run riot would heighten the contrast while bringing some much-needed anarchy to the proceedings.

Thomas Lynch’s ingenious back wall, when treated with John Boesche’s environmental projections, admirably conveys a variety of textures and moods, a trait unhappily not shared by the drama itself.

Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie

Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles; 155 seats; $89 top

Production

A Geffen Playhouse presentation of a play in two acts by Alan Alda. Directed by Daniel Sullivan.

Crew

Sets, Thomas Lynch; costumes, Rita Ryack; lighting, Daniel Ionazzi; sound, Jon Gottlieb; projections, John Boesche. Opened, reviewed Nov. 9, 2011. Runs through Dec. 11. Running time: 1 HOUR, 50 MIN.

With

Marie Curie - Anna Gunn
Paul Langevin - Dan Donohue
Jeanne Langevin - Sarah Zimmerman
Pierre Curie - John de Lancie
With: Hugo Armstrong, Leonard Kelly-Young, Natacha Roi.

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