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Einstein: A Stage Portrait




Ivanhoe Theater

The emphasis here, says the press release, is on "the man behind the genius." The just-plain-Al in Albert Einstein. And sure enough, Willard Simms's Einstein: A Stage Portrait goes heavy on personal reminiscence and domestic detail. We hear the anecdote about how his uncle taught him the essence of algebra while chasing butterflies. We see him do his Jack Benny imitation. We get the poop on his failed first marriage, and how his jolly second wife ate an orchid at a bigwig banquet. We find out that he and his boy Edward shared a passion for strawberry ice cream.

Simms's Einstein is basically just a pleasant old guy with a picturesque accent ("Areesmatik, it is not my best subject") who spends most of his time lost in thought. A pipe-puffing academic who made a breakthrough that gave him somewhat more notoriety than he can conveniently handle.

And that being the case, why should we want to spend two hours hearing him talk? In a program note, Simms suggests that exposing "the man behind the myth will help audience members to make up their own minds about how and why some of these public controversies [surrounding Einstein] may have come into existence." But in fact, it only demonstrates that "Professor Relativity Himself" could be as trivial and sentimental and normal and boring as anybody else. All right, maybe a little more so than anybody else.

This picture of Einstein as a fuzzier Fred MacMurray may be a source of comfort to those of us who can't suss the great physicist's achievement, no matter how hard we try to imagine ourselves on a train running alongside a football field at the speed of light. It's reassuring to think of the world shatterer at home, all cozy with his sweatshirt and a cup of tea. But it doesn't illuminate him in any way that matters. Because in the end it wasn't Einstein the man who reinvented the cosmos; and it isn't Einstein the man who continues to hover around us like Hamlet's ghost--telling us dreadful truths, driving us toward strange thoughts, making the hard world shimmer and melt. It was Einstein the genius. It is Einstein the myth.

A few years ago, Chicago's own Steve Ivcich dealt marvelously with the Einstein that matters by breaking him up into four archetypal aspects--each with a rubber Einstein mask--and leading them through a series of scary/absurd adventures in the land of the 20th century. Simms's literalist portrait is nowhere near as theatrical or profound.

Worse, it's not even all that interesting. Mythic or not, I could see where an evening spent with one of civilization's greatest, most creative thinkers might offer certain pleasures. A little wit, a little insight. But the Simms Einstein is implacably banal and ingenuous. As portrayed by journeyman actor Larry Gelman, he applies the same dull sentimentality to every subject, from strawberry ice cream to the Third Reich.

This Einstein's intellectual mediocrity is especially obvious when he starts talking about the bomb, fretting that it's a perversion of his work. Now I can understand how Einstein might find the issue painful, and brood deeply over it. But--even leaving aside his complicity in getting the Manhattan Project started--he'd have to be a fairly dull boy to find it surprising. Which is what he seems to do here. I find it hard to believe that Einstein, the master of paradox, couldn't parse this one out.

The fundamental problem, I suppose, is that neither Simms nor Gelman is as smart as Einstein. Or, more accurately, they aren't smart enough to know they're not as smart as Einstein. Rather than make themselves a vehicle for the great man's personality, they make that personality a ventriloquist's dummy and talk heartwarming tripe through it. Simms and Gelman don't want to encompass Einstein. just cut him down to size.

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