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An Unfinshed Riddle

Oppenheimer, Lilith, and T.S. Eliot walk into a bar . . .

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The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer

Next Theatre Company

Carson Kreitzer's The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer is full of ideas about Judaism, feminism, and the nuclear age; its subjects made for a fascinating panel discussion two days before opening night among the playwright, a feminist biblical scholar, and an expert on T.S. Eliot. But the play, which imagines a meeting between the father of the atomic bomb and Lilith, sinks beneath the weight of its allusions: we learn quite a bit about Adam's noncanonical first wife and about nuclear physics without ever learning the point of the information.

Lilith appears to Oppenheimer after he's noticed that his theoretical physics killed quite a few actual people. If she were a figure of evil, as she's often been represented, this would make sense: the creation of a destructive power puts him in touch with another destructive power. But Kreitzer seems determined to redeem Lilith, and so she makes this mythic figure ambiguous if not sympathetic. Is the playwright suggesting that Oppenheimer's work is like female sexuality, simply another great power feared because it's misunderstood? It's a strange equation that makes the scientist's crisis of conscience almost ridiculous. But if they aren't being equated, why are they sharing a stage?

There are hints in the text that Kreitzer is fascinated by these two figures because both are associated with Judaism. During the panel discussion she mentioned that this play was her first opportunity to explore her own heritage, and the script smacks of someone encountering the tropes of Jewishness for the first time; veteran Jews have usually gone beyond references to chosen people, the desert, homelessness, and self-hatred. None of these things was news to Oppenheimer--Kreitzer even suggests that his determination to build the bomb was fueled by his awareness of what happened during the Holocaust.

What's frustrating here is the wealth of missed opportu-nities. Kreitzer's allusion to Eliot is a perfect example: if she means to highlight the parallels between the poet and the scientist, both of whom felt that life after a world war was a wasteland, the appropriate allusion is not to "Prufrock" but to "The Wasteland," or better yet to "The Hollow Men" ("This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper"). Who could be more perfectly hollow than Oppenheimer, who eviscerated his morality to work on the bomb and then ended up with his insides eaten away by cancer? Kreitzer consistently seems on the verge of something brilliant and then falls away. And after creating a thought-provoking encounter between the historical and the mythic, she foolishly mentions the Rosenbergs, making invidious comparison with Tony Kushner's Angels in America inevitable.

Though David Cromer is a likable (if tic-ridden) Oppenheimer, he has no character to play--Oppenheimer is simply a mouthpiece for ideas. Similarly, Wendy Robie does the best she can in a hissing, crawling portrayal of Lilith. The only actor able to flesh out his underwritten part is Sean Sinitski: his portrait of Edward Teller, who suggested in 1954 that Oppenheimer was a security risk, shows every conflicted impulse of a man who betrayed his closest friend. Sinitski even rises above director Nic Dimond's decision to have emigre scientists Klaus Fuchs, Isidor Rabi, and Teller imitate a better-known trio of destructive Jews: the Three Stooges.

This play is one draft away from brilliance. I'd wait.

When: Through 3/6: Thu 7:30 PM, Fri-Sat 8 PM, Sun 2 PM.

Mon: 2/28, 7 PM

Where: Next Theatre Company, Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes, Evanston

Price: $20-$31

Info: 847-475-1875, ext. 2

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.

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