×

In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer

Ideas are monolithic in the Keen Company's revival of "J. Robert Oppenheimer." Heinar Kipphardt's 1969 play adapts the transcripts of the 1954 governmental inquiry that questioned whether Oppenheimer was a true patriot or an unrepentant Communist whose hesitancy about the development of U.S. weaponry constituted treason.

With:
J. Robert Oppenheimer - Thomas Jay Ryan Roger Robb - Rocco Sisto Herbert Marks - Steve Routman Edward Teller - Keith Reddin

Ideas are monolithic in the Keen Company’s revival of “In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer.” Heinar Kipphardt’s 1969 play adapts the transcripts of the 1954 governmental inquiry that questioned whether Oppenheimer — known as “the father of the atomic bomb” — was a true patriot or an unrepentant Communist whose hesitancy about the development of U.S. weaponry constituted treason. Trying to consider the entire McCarthy era, Kipphardt explores not only the question of nuclear war but also the roles dissent and nonconformity can play in American democracy.

The play never simplifies its arguments. Every character — including Oppenheimer (Thomas Jay Ryan), the government attorneys arguing over his patriotism and the panel of scientists who will judge him — delivers an intricate speech on war, weaponry or the value of independent thought. Beautifully wrought, these monologues demand close attention as they wend toward their conclusions, and Kipphardt’s writing always offers the reward of a surprising or inflammatory insight.

Everything about Carl Forsman’s production insists on the gravitas of the words. Nathan Heverin’s four-tier, inverse pyramid set creates an imposing chain of command, from judges to defenders to prosecutors to witnesses. Power seems to crash down on Oppenheimer, a lone figure sitting at the bottom of the heap.

But to make sure we don’t get lost in empathy for Oppenheimer as a character, Forsman keeps his actors almost entirely disconnected. Though the dialogue has them addressing each other, thesps keep their eyes straight ahead over the audience. Rare instances of interaction only reiterate the show’s impersonality, which makes it easier to focus on the ideological content of what characters say. Ultimately, these are 12 men speaking from 12 adjacent pulpits.

And they do near-flawless work. Dense language flows easily from the ensemble’s mouths, making the dialogue sound like the spontaneous utterances of some highly educated speakers.

Whether or not they’re intentional, the cast’s occasional flubs — searching for a word, accidentally saying “A-bomb” instead of “H-bomb” — remind us that humans are indeed making these lofty pronouncements on the natures of government and science. That’s a crucial fact to remember as we consider the lasting impact this and similar “inquiries” have had on American politics.

To that end, obvious parallels fuse “Oppenheimer” to the debate surrounding the current war in Iraq (the phrase “weapons of mass destruction” even gets tossed around). Many viewers who step out of the play long enough to connect it to our current world will be chilled.

But that also points to the play’s serious limitation. To link its ideas to the present — or even to the McCarthy-era America it describes — we must intellectually remove ourselves from the action on the stage. The present moment of what we’re observing lacks dramatic urgency.

From the beginning, for instance, we are told that what we’re watching is not a proper trial. At worst, Oppenheimer is going to be stripped of his clearance to see government secrets. So even though the characters’ fulminations may affect an outside world we never see, they will have little consequence for the world being created before us. The hermetic universe of the court proceedings ends as it began, with no change in appearance, sound or behavior.

This onstage stasis makes it difficult to stay engaged, particularly after three hours. Arguably, though, Forsman is right to place the production’s focus on ideas. It would be inappropriate to tart up the show with action that just isn’t in the script. Plus, Kipphardt’s subjects are vital in the real world, so it only behooves us to consider them.

All of which leaves “In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer” as a conundrum, dramatic but not theatrical.

Popular on Variety

In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer

Connelly Theater; 99 seats; $19 top

Production: A Keen Company presentation of a play in two acts by Heinar Kipphardt. Directed by Carl Forsman.

Creative: Set, Nathan Heverin; costumes, Theresa Squire; lighting, Josh Bradford; dramaturg, Melissa Hardy; production stage manager, Erin Grenier. Opened June 7, 2006. Reviewed June 6. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Cast: J. Robert Oppenheimer - Thomas Jay Ryan Roger Robb - Rocco Sisto Herbert Marks - Steve Routman Edward Teller - Keith ReddinWith: Wilbur Edwin Henry, Dan Daily, Peter Davies, Matthew Rauch, Ian Stuart, D.J. Mendel, Jonathan Hogan, Matt Fischel.

More Legit

  • The Sound Inside review

    Broadway Review: 'The Sound Inside' Starring Mary-Louise Parker

    Mary-Louise Parker will take your breath away with her deeply felt and sensitively drawn portrait of a tenured Yale professor who treasures great literature, but has made no room in her life for someone to share that love with. The other thesp in this two-hander is Will Hochman, endearing in the supportive role of a [...]

  • Little Shop of Horrors review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Little Shop of Horrors'

    With its strains of kitschy doo-wop and its sci-fi B-movie inspirations, the quaint 1982 musical “Little Shop of Horrors” hardly seems a thing of modern-day revivalism, even despite its touches of S&M. Yet this year alone, not only is there an Off Broadway production of the blackly comic “Little Shop” featuring Jonathan Groff of Netflix’s [...]

  • The Lightning Thief review musical

    Broadway Review: 'The Lightning Thief,' The Musical

    “It’s a lot to take in right now,” says Percy Jackson, the teen hero of “The Lightning Thief,” the kid-centric fantasy musical (based on the popular Y.A. novel) that’s now on Broadway after touring the country and playing an Off Broadway run. You could say that’s a bit of an understatement from contemporary teen Percy [...]

  • The Rose Tattoo review

    Broadway Review: 'The Rose Tattoo' Starring Marisa Tomei

    “The Rose Tattoo” is what happens when a poet writes a comedy — something strange, but kind of lovely. The same might be said of director Trip Cullman’s production: Strange, if not exactly lovely. Even Marisa Tomei, so physically delicate and expressively refined, seems an odd choice to play the lusty and passionate protagonist, Serafina [...]

  • Obit-Roy-B

    Former NATO President Roy B. White Dies at 93

    Roy B. White, former president and chairman of the National Association of Theater Owners, died of natural causes Oct. 11 in Naples, Fla. He was 93. White ran the 100-screen independent theater circuit, Mid–States Theaters Inc. In addition to his career, he did extensive work on behalf of charities and non-profits. He was vice president [...]

  • Soft Power review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Soft Power'

    The “culture-clash musical” is a familiar template, in which a white American protagonist — waving the flag of individuality, optimism and freedom — trumps and tramps over the complexities of that which is foreign, challenging or “other.” David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s “Soft Power,” the new “play with a musical” at Off Broadway’s Public [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content