Sir Isaac Newton (Justin Salinger) tosses the curls of his 18th-century wig and draws himself erect: “May I ask what is going on here?” Good question. A second nurse lies dead at a Swiss clinic and the culprit Albert Einstein (Paul Bhattacharjee) cannot be arrested as he’s elsewhere playing Beethoven’s Kreutzer sonata. Despite hi-def performances underlining the theatricality of this Cold War scientific warning, even Josie Rourke’s smart, valiant revival of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s 1961 “The Physicists” can’t quite heal the rift between the drama and the dialectic.
Almost a decade before Tom Stoppard begin his career writing similar absurdist comedies of intellectual enquiry, Durrenmatt’s writing seems startlingly prescient, not least for a character list headed by real-life figures. This, however, is no “Frost/Nixon,” not least because the characters of Newton, Einstein and, crucially, Mobius are all men in an insane asylum believing themselves to be the thinkers in question. Or are they? In a late sequence of twisty revelations, no one turns out to be who they appear to be.
Throughout the first act, the characters’ truth remains hidden beneath the ruthless logic beloved by absurdist playwrights. A beady John Ramm is on hand as perplexed Det. Inspector Voss, stymied at every turn as he tries to get the bottom of the murdered nurses. And with everything revealed and peculiarly condoned by Sophie Thompson as fierce asylum boss Dr. van Zahnd (comically hunchbacked and as uptight as her hairdo,) this looks to be another ’60s-era debate about the division between madness and sanity.
In the opening brittle comedy, Robert Jones’ gleaming white set so crisply places the performers in stark relief that their every gesture is underlined. Rourke initially overplays her hand with slow pacing — such self-evidently odd activity doesn’t need additional self-evidently odd playing and events need to move faster. But her production strengthens considerably as events start to spiral into more affecting darkness.
Lina (ideally bright Miranda Raison), Mobius’s ex-wife, visits him with the teenage sons whom he has never met. Thanks to the depth of the performances, the scene in which they meet for the first time, complete with the boys playing a Buxtehude duet on recorders, only to announce their departure for America, is as painful as it is bizarre, largely due to John Heffernan’s beautifully judged performance as Mobius. Gaunt and taut, his suppression of his feelings is so complete that his explosion creates a chill of true sadness.
Problematically, however, the second act reveals such preceding activity to be largely scene-setting illustration rather than action with direct consequences.
The meat of the play finally arrives not in action but in a debate. Disguises are comically discarded revealing the three famous inmates’ true identities so that they can launch into an extended discussion about scientific responsibility and the nuclear threat.
Clearly, current fears about nuclear usage make that debate still relevant. But here, the discussions of how scientists initiated these ideas that led to the creation of the bomb, and how they are caught between “pure” research and its application by political and military powers, feel too unspecific to escape the charge of being dated. For all its fascination as a piece of neglected theatre history, Durrenmatt’s play doesn’t transcend its formerly potent political context.