Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman apparently pronounced the word “in-ter-est-ing” making sure all the syllables were distinct. And, as depicted by Alan Alda in Peter Parnell’s play, “QED,” Feynman found lots of things highly “in-ter-est-ing.” This is the genius, after all, who contributed some essential understanding to our knowledge of the universe, and who also loved playing hand drums, performing bit roles in theatrical productions at his home base of Cal Tech and learning lots about a tiny, distant country because he found the odd spelling of its capital city “in-ter-est-ing.” A well-cast Alda captures this blend of eclectic curiosity and irrepressible enthusiasm, qualities that make the first act of this work an entertaining and informative portrait. But as a play, Parnell’s “QED,” receiving its world premiere at the Mark Taper Forum, never engages with its subject in any imaginative way, and ultimately reduces big ideas to transparent sentimentality. There’s poetic injustice in portraying in the most conventional way possible a man who questioned the traditional approach to everything.
The play is inspired by the writings of Feynman and his long-time friend Ralph Leighton, particularly on their work “Tuva or Bust!” Tuva, or actually Tannu Tuva, is the name of the land Feynman impulsively began investigating when he discovered its bizarrely named capital. His offbeat interest in visiting the place and the zeal with which he pursued it (learning the language, studying its folk tales) demonstrated his remarkable capacity for letting his mind go wherever it took him — which is exactly what made him such an important scientist.
With this characteristic at its core, Parnell has fashioned what is in essence a one-man show, although another character, a physics student of Feynman’s played by Allison Smith, does make a couple of appearances. Alda addresses the audience in Feynman’s voice as he prepares a lecture with the overarching theme “What We Know,” which this gives him an opportunity to reflect on his extraordinary life.
He talks of his time at Los Alamos, where he contributed to the development of the atom bomb. He goes into various tangents about his most important work, trying in bits and pieces to explain his still-governing theory of quantum electrodynamics (thus the title, which also refers to the Latin acronym often seen at the end of complex mathematical solutions). A force of nature himself, he thinks out loud about the nature of nature, which “doesn’t give up its secrets easily,” and how it’s necessary for people to come to terms with essential doubt.
His ponderings get interrupted by a series of phone calls. Some of these deal with his involvement in investigating, and solving, the mystery of the space shuttle Challenger’s disastrous fate. But more often on the other line are doctors who discuss with him the newly found cancerous tumor dangerously close to his only remaining kidney.
“QED” touches on so many different themes that talking about it at length would make it sound deep indeed, since, as Feynman says toward the end, “Everything is in-ter-est-ing if you look at it deeply enough.” Parnell, however, looks at everything very superficially, particularly the dramatic choice he places at the center of the piece — whether Feynman will decide to have a risky operation to remove the tumor. Whatever possibilities exist for contemplating a great scientist forced to confront his own mortality get reduced to pure saccharine. This is where the second character comes in, as Parnell creates a cliched scene in which Feynman’s good-looking female student reminds him of life’s pleasures. Smith is fine in the role, but it’s not much of a role.
Plays about scientists form a dramatic genre of their own. Many of them deal with how politics can collide with science, like Brecht’s “Galileo” and Howard Brenton’s “The Genius.” There’s Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt’s fanciful “The Physicists,” and Hugh Whitemore’s more traditional bio-play “Breaking the Code,” about mathematician Alan Turing. Michael Frayn, in his Tony Award-winning “Copenhagen,” depicting a meeting between nuclear physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, found a way to infuse the structure of the scientific subject itself into the dramaturgy. In his plays “Hapgood” and “Arcadia,” Tom Stoppard played artistically with scientific principles even though the works were not about science directly.
“QED” pales in comparison to all of these plays, primarily because it talks about ideas without developing them or finding a way to reflect them theatrically. When taking on a subject like Feynman, one is really taking on the structure of the world itself, because that’s what he cared about. Here, all we get are cute quips, albeit nicely delivered by Alda, a seasoned and likable pro.
Director Gordon Davidson stages it all as well as possible, keeping Alda moving around but not letting it get jittery. D. Martyn Bookwalter’s lighting and Ralph Funicello’s realistic set, depicting Feynman’s office at Cal Tech with equations cluttering the blackboard, are also perfectly fine.
In the end, we’re left knowing a few more facts about a very in-ter-est-ing man, but the piece lacks both insight and creativity.