If you take a well-regarded play — Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt’s sardonic “The Physicists”– and add to it one esteemed director — Martin Magner — will you have success? In this case, no. The play comes off as flat as the set, and the best intentions have created an often static and slow-paced work.
The late Durrenmatt remains the most widely produced German-language dramatist since Bertolt Brecht, but from this staging one would wonder why. Like Brecht, Durrenmatt’s work is often quite cerebral, and it takes an animated cast and an inspired director to create movement among the ideas.
In a Swiss mental institution, 1962, three nurses who care for three brilliant physicists die at the hands of their charges. One man claims he’s Einstein (Philip Persons) and another insists he’s Newton (Jack Manning).
The third scientist, Johan Wilhelm Mobius (Ari Barak), has been pretending to be insane so that his scientific knowledge will be kept out of the hands of politicians — even if it takes killing his nurse to remained locked up.
The first act comes off like community theater: lines spoken by well-meaning actors in secondary roles who give little life to their characters. The second act, with the three scientists together, and the passion and angst of protagonist Mobius, becomes more promising, only to be dashed by long speeches spoken from chairs.
Perhaps director Magner has been too reverent with the piece, giving the audience genius under a bell jar. What’s missing is irreverence, and the potential for humor is there in the script.
Durrenmatt himself once spoke of comedy as the only possible answer to a world in which “responsible men no longer exist … (and which) has led to the grotesque as well as to the atom bomb.” While there are a few laughs in this production, they are elicited despite everything else.
The set design by Don Gruber, while expensive-looking, lacks personality, and his light design is just as uninspired. (At one point, the interior lights dim to show the sun dimming.) Costume design by Michael Pacciorini, on the other hand, has flair.