The eponymous “Emilie” in Lauren Gunderson’s South Coast Rep world premiere is one of those marginal historical figures that playwrights delight in rediscovering. The Marquise Du Chatelet was an early 18th century personage who ought to be better known: She was a much-sought-after courtesan and world-class physicist; Voltaire’s lover and sometime lab partner; and a fearless proponent of “Force Vive,” a life-force theory at odds with prevailing Newtonian orthodoxy. But Gunderson and helmer David Emmes cross the line from celebration into hagiography, robbing the lady of sympathy. This cerebral, anemic pageant could use a little Force Vive itself.
Magically transported back from the dead to harangue us, Emilie (Natacha Roi) professes a desire to understand whether love or philosophy endures. Toting up the evidence for each side on an upstage chalkboard, she’s really interested in self-justification, instructing us in her theories with the same indulgent condescension Greer Garson employed to spell out radium to Walter Pidgeon in “Madame Curie.”
Nothing fazes our heroine. She masters every task, wins at cards and runs rings around Enlightenment wits’ wordplay. As she adopts new lovers, her husband graciously funds her and keeps his distance.
Remarkably unconstrained by male chauvinist prejudice, she gloats like a tennis superstar at an academician’s attack on her bestselling physics textbook: “It is an honor just to merit a response. But I’ll break him anyway.” Game, set and match, as always, to Emilie.
Within her copious research, Gunderson hasn’t located the qualities to keep us interested in or concerned about this paragon’s progress. Or if she has, Emmes has directed the smug Roi to steamroll over moments of doubt or vulnerability; when she steps on someone’s toes, she murmurs “I’m sorry” and goes on to the next triumph. Surely the real Emilie had tougher rows to hoe than these.
While there is merely straw opposition from the male establishment and a stiff-necked mother, one expects fireworks from Voltaire (Don Reilly), the multitasking genius locked into a lifetime of battles with his considerably younger, putative soulmate.
That expectation doesn’t reckon with the feeble arguments supplied by Gunderson, nor with the casting of Reilly, who brings to his role an operetta tenor’s pouty petulance but no intellectual heft. He seems easily five years younger than Roi, wiping away potential mentor/devotee tension. In the end his function, like everyone else’s, is merely to make Emilie shine brighter.
SCR’s usually topnotch production values are less in evidence here, Cameron Anderson’s flying and gliding scenery smacking more of this century than the 18th. Nephelie Andonyadis’ costumes are generic off-the-rack, except for Emilie’s unflattering dressing gown, lewdly open to what appear to be jodhpurs and riding boots (doubtless meant to symbolize a woman coping in a man’s world).
Certainly Gunderson has spared no theatricality to bring Emilie alive. When she starts her supreme project of translating Newton into French, the cast exhibits the Newtonian laws in mime, much as Itamar Moses turned act one of “Bach at Leipzig” into a living fugue. But such devices have to emerge from fully defined characters or they seem self-conscious conceits, and that character work is lacking here.
Speaking of laws, the reincarnated Emilie is bound by a strange law of physics, or metaphysics: Daring to touch someone from her past causes a loud electrical short and blackout, so she must always keep her distance. Sometimes physical laws should give way to theatrical ones.
When two human beings connect in a play, we want the lights on.