'The Radiant'

New Theater production disappoints for lack of a better script, stronger director and more gifted co-stars.

Angelica Torn has amassed acclaim on both coasts and in multiple media for disappearing inside a chameleonic range of intense roles. But as hard as Torn works to conjure scientist Marie Curie in the world premiere of Shirley Lauro’s biographical “The Radiant,” this New Theater production disappoints for lack of a better script, stronger director and more gifted co-stars, leaving a skilled actress adrift in a production that is alternately lethargic and melodramatic.

The award-winning Lauro has previously written successfully about the intersection of women and history, so she’s naturally drawn to the complex human being beneath the storybook heroine — a mercurial pioneer of both science and women’s sovereignty who became the first person to win two Nobel Prizes.

But Lauro struggles in trying to layer in backstory, scientific theory, off-stage occurrences and a boatload of stultifying exposition. Worse, artistic director Ricky J. Martinez, who mounted solid productions of “The Glass Menagerie” and “Madagascar” at this Miami theater, can’t get any actor other than Torn to deliver that exposition with anything less than a trowel.

Part of the problem may be endemic to the biographical play. Unless a piece focuses on one event, as in “Sunrise at Campobello,” it’s difficult to encompass the full sweep of a life without telling what’s happened off-stage rather than showing it, as a film can do.

The plot is intriguing enough. After the death of her beloved Pierre, Curie battles the establishment’s refusal to recognize her primary share of their work. A single mother of two at age 38, she slides into an affair with her lab assistant, a married man with three children. The ensuing scandal nearly destroys her career, but she perseveres despite prolonged illness, sexism and French xenophobia against her Polish roots.

Lauro and Torn’s Curie is not the sanitized, saintly Greer Garson. This pioneering woman projects a curt, offputting exterior forged out of determination and self-control — which conceals a maelstrom of shyness, fear and heartache. Torn succeeds in putting across all that and a girlish relief in the rare moment that Curie lets down her guard.

But since Curie is ill through much of the play from what will be diagnosed as radiation poisoning long after her death, that drives the show is Torn’s restrained intensity.

Lauro and Torn, both members of the Actors Studio, have shepherded this project through three workshops, but obvious stumbles remain. In a graveside scene, Curie is in the throes of misery bemoaning the death of her husband when her lab assistant plants a big kiss on her lips and declares his love; even more surprisingly, she responds.

The most crippling element is Richard-John Seikaly as the lover in a flat performance. Though he has the dusky smoldering looks, he has no believable connection with Torn. Why Curie would have anything to do with this limpid cipher is a mystery. A more vibrant, charismatic partner for Torn would help matters considerably.

The Radiant

New Theater, Coral Gables, Fla,; 100 seats; $40 top

Production

A New Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Shirley Lauro. Directed by Ricky J. Martinez.

Creative

Sets, Rob Eastman-Mullins; costumes, K. Blair Brown; lighting, Ricky J. Martinez; sound, Ozzie Quintana; production stage manager, Vanessa L. Thompson; Opened, reviewed March 26, 2011. Running time: 2 HOURS

Cast

Marie Curie - Angelica Torn
Katarina - Hana Kalinski
Paul - Richard-John Seikaly
Paymaster, Wilbois, Kelvin, Oleffsen - Stephen Neal
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