×

The Physicists

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.

With:
Johann Wilhelm Mobius - John Heffernan
Dr. Mathilde van Zahnd - Sophie Thompson
Newton - Justin Salinger
Einstein - Paul Bhattacharjee
Mrs. Lina Rose,
Nurse Monika Stettler - Miranda Raison
Det. Inspector Voss - John Ramm
Nurse Marta Boll - Joanna Brookes
Blocher, Wilfred Kaspar - Oliver Coopersmith
Coroner, Adolf-Friedrich - Ben Hardy
Uwe Sievers - Adam McNamara
Fantam Murillo - Obioma Ugoala

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.

Popular on Variety

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.

The Physicists

Donmar Warehouse, London; 250 seats; £32.50, $50 top

Production: A Donmar Warehouse presentation of a play in two acts by Friedrich Durrenmatt in a new version by Jack Thorne. Directed by Josie Rourke. Sets and costumes, Robert Jones; lighting, Hugh Vanstone; sound, Emma Laxton; music, Michael Bruce; production stage manager, Laura Draper. Opened, reviewed Jun. 7, 2012. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Cast: Johann Wilhelm Mobius - John Heffernan
Dr. Mathilde van Zahnd - Sophie Thompson
Newton - Justin Salinger
Einstein - Paul Bhattacharjee
Mrs. Lina Rose,
Nurse Monika Stettler - Miranda Raison
Det. Inspector Voss - John Ramm
Nurse Marta Boll - Joanna Brookes
Blocher, Wilfred Kaspar - Oliver Coopersmith
Coroner, Adolf-Friedrich - Ben Hardy
Uwe Sievers - Adam McNamara
Fantam Murillo - Obioma Ugoala

More Legit

  • Gregg Smith, Dancer and Choreographer Assistant,

    Gregg Smith, Dancer and Choreographer Assistant, Dies at 73

    Gregg Smith, a dancer, casting director and assistant choreographer who had a long association with director Kenny Ortega, has died. He was 73. Smith died on Jan. 1. The industry veteran worked as a performer in the national touring company of the musical “Hair” and in a Los Angeles production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” He [...]

  • Frozen review musical

    Warmth and Humor Pervade Pantages Production of 'Frozen' the Musical

    In 2013, Disney’s “Frozen” hit screens like a 100 mile-per-hour snowball, sparking a pop cultural phenomenon in which little girls and boys pranced about dressed in Anna and Elsa and Olaf costumes while belting aloud “Let It Go,” Elsa’s feminist anthemic response to ice powers rendering her a societal outcast. The animated movie won two [...]

  • My Name Is Lucy Barton review

    'My Name is Lucy Barton': Theater Review

    Laura Linney is in love. Just watch the radiant expression on her face as she wraps her arms around the character of Lucy Barton, a role she played in two separate engagements at the Bridge Theater in London, and is now reprising on Broadway in “My Name is Lucy Barton.” The feeling is obviously mutual, [...]

  • 'Broadway Profiles with Tamsen Fadal' to

    'Broadway Profiles with Tamsen Fadal' to Air Weekly, Syndicate Nationally (EXCLUSIVE)

    “Broadway Profiles with Tamsen Fadal” will become nationally syndicated, marking a first for a program about the Great White Way. Beginning in fall 2020, the monthly show will increase frequency to air weekly. The show is hosted and executive-produced by 12-time Emmy Award winner Tamsen Fadal, a news anchor at WPIX, the channel that initially [...]

  • Laura Linney My Name Is Lucy

    Listen: What Laura Linney Learns From Bad Shows

    For Laura Linney, every stage experience is a learning experience. “Even the bad ones!” she cheerfully declared on the new episode of Stagecraft, Variety’s theater podcast. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “Even the ones that are really bad, and I’ve been really bad in some things,” continued the Emmy winner, currently back on Broadway [...]

  • 'Betrayal' Star Zawe Ashton Signs With

    'Betrayal' Star Zawe Ashton Signs With CAA (EXCLUSIVE)

    Zawe Ashton has signed with CAA, Variety has learned. Most recently seen on Broadway in the hit revival of Harold Pinter’s “Betryal,” Ashton is the definition of a multi-hyphenate. In addition to being an in-demand actress, Ashton is a director, playwright and author. While earning critical raves for “Betrayal,” Ashton made her debut as a [...]

  • Michael Feinstein Kristin Chenoweth Sutton Foster

    Jerry Herman Memorial Set for Feb. 3 at Lunt-Fontanne Theatre

    A memorial service for Broadway composer and lyricist Jerry Herman will be held at 3 p.m. on Feb. 3 at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Michael Feinstein is producing the tribute, which will feature performances from a number of notable legit stars, including Kristin Chenoweth, Harvey Fierstein, Sutton Foster, Kelli O’Hara, Bernadette Peters and Betty Buckley. Angela [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content