- Courtesy of Lindsay Raymondjack Photography
- Ron Crawford and Laura Wolfsen
With Relativity, Vermont Stage offers a three-character comedy that quotes Albert Einstein's wit while inventing a confrontation for him about a true and little-known skeleton in his closet. Mark St. Germain builds his play around the biographical tidbit that Einstein and his first wife had a daughter in 1902 but never publicly acknowledged her. The playwright imagines a 1949 encounter between the physicist and a reporter who knows about the daughter.
Devising plays about historical figures is St. Germain's trademark. He had a major success in 1995 with Camping With Henry and Tom, featuring Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and President Warren G. Harding. Freud's Last Session and Becoming Dr. Ruth are more recent applications of the playwright's research-based dramatizations of famous figures.
In Relativity, St. Germain never goes an inch deeper than the surface image of Einstein as an impish genius with a charming sense of humor and a fierce devotion to the hard work of science. But he does give audiences a chance to see the famous man in the privacy of his home, cardigan sweater and all.
Einstein's Princeton, N.J., home office features a pleasantly rumpled desk, with books and papers spilling over onto the floor to suggest the character's busy mind. Behind the desk, a chalkboard bristles with equations and tall bookcases hold mementos, photos and the mathematician's cherished violin.
Miss Dukas, Einstein's housekeeper and secretary, is the guardian of two sliding pocket doors that seal off the room. When Einstein succumbs to the reporter's plea for an interview, Dukas takes one look at the woman introduced as Margaret Harding and doubts her employer's judgment. But Einstein dispatches Dukas and evidently expects to make quick work of charming Margaret by telling jokes to his parrot and grinning in full absentminded-professor style.
Einstein's encounter with Margaret is less a confrontation than two people taking turns scolding each other, with neither party changed in the least. Margaret has acquired a trove of correspondence between the abandoned daughter's foster mother and Einstein and his wife. She's indignant about the girl's treatment, the more so after discovering other evidence of Einstein's heartless approach to his two wives and two sons. Margaret is here to condemn the private man whose public persona is universally lauded.
As Einstein, Ron Crawford has grown the famous messy mane of white hair to give his character verisimilitude and dusts a German accent over his speech to make himself a solid facsimile. Hunched posture and a brisk walking pace give him both age and tireless energy. Crawford is engaging, but he often resorts to some world's-most-famous-Jewish-genius shtick — perhaps because the script gives him little else to work with.
Laura Wolfsen plays Margaret with a stiffness that may be intended to suggest European manners and the formality of an earlier era. The net effect, though, is a characterization that can't earn much sympathy. With a tight, nervous carriage, Wolfsen conveys the most brittle form of righteousness. As scathing as her statements may be, the accusation that Einstein didn't devote himself to his family doesn't disturb him or, perhaps, most viewers.
St. Germain breaks up every potentially escalating exchange by bringing Dukas in to interrupt, inject some humor or do some scolding of her own. Catherine Domareki gives the character armor of polished steel; she keeps her eyes fiercely narrowed and imperiously turns Margaret into a servant by handing her a tray. Domareki works with some subtlety to elevate the character a bit above caricature, but the role is a comic one built on huffy departures.
The play is a single scene, giving Margaret one brief encounter to trick Einstein into seeing her, pour out the contents of a few letters, dress him down, and await an apology and transformation that never come.
The psychology underneath a situation like Margaret's is never the playwright's concern. We're left with a wooden figure of indignation who won't change her mind about Einstein, just as he won't change his about her. Dramatically, it's both tedious in its improbability and pointless in its evocation of an impasse.
St. Germain's research drowns the play, substituting Einstein's quotable observations for dialogue and his well-known manner for character. Einstein so dominates the discussion that the play never becomes a real verbal battle; the intellectual and emotional force of the argument is stacked high on the professor's side. Margaret is aggrieved but has little to say after assuming that the facts alone are overwhelming, while Einstein can eloquently make a case for his purpose in the world, no matter how cold he's been about human relationships.
Director Jordan Gullikson focuses almost exclusively on the potential for life-changing confrontation. The actors stay deadly serious, even though the script sprinkles in plenty of Einstein's humor. The story is too light to justify the somber pace. And the play's suggestion that scientific contributions to the world might make a man great but only familial love can make him good is not much of a profundity.
Staged in a runway format at Main Street Landing's Black Box Theater, the audience is seated on two sides with the stage in between. It's puzzling that Gullikson and scenic designer Jeff Modereger chose this awkward arrangement. The blocking is strained at almost every moment; actors either move with limited purpose through an artificially wide room or hop into and out of chairs to avoid turning their backs on half of the audience for too long.
Relativity is unlikely to change a viewer's mind about Einstein. And though the play tries to paint a neat binary split between social good and personal warmth, it doesn't take genius to understand that it's a false duality.