In the Lantern Theatre’s production of “QED,” the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman is preparing a lecture entitled “What We Know.”
What we, the audience, know is that a two-hour monologue about a famous person needs to have more dramatic tension, more imagination, more daring, and less by-the-book, “official” structure than in Peter Purnell play, directed by M. Craig Getting.
The play’s title refers to Feynman’s work on quantum electrodynamics, for which he won the Nobel Prize. The play is inspired by the writings of Feynman, and Ralph Leighton’s book, Tuva or Bust!
The play shows that the iconoclastic Feynman did not like “the official way of doing anything.” Unlike Feynman, who won the Nobel Prize by thinking outside of the box, the play works safely within the standard biographical play formula, as Ben Brantley wrote of the original production starring Alan Alda in 2001:
Careful dropping of names and/or awards to establish subject as person of consequence? Check. Scenes in which subject sinks into self-doubts followed by scenes that affirm joy of living? Check, check, check.
Barrymore Award-winner Peter DeLaurier reprises his role from the Lantern’s original 2006 production. He is a fine actor, tall and lanky as Feynman was, and energetically inhabits the role of the cool but quirky, absent-minded, tender-hearted but tough-minded physics professor.
One feels the play strains to make itself and its character entertaining for the audience. The scientist is not a nerd: He is a ladies’ man. He is not one-dimensional: He likes to hang out in Las Vegas. It is a monologue, except for the character of Miriam, one of Feynman’s physics students, well-played by Clare Mahoney, that takes place in Feynman’s office at Cal Tech in 1986.
Having read many of Feynman’s engaging essays, where he writes about his passion for science, women, and the puzzle of human life with eloquence, good humor and even wisdom, one emerges from the play with a caricature of a scientist who was not a nerd: a self-professed ladies man who also was an amateur actor. When Act two opens with Feynman clad in the costume he wore in a production of South Pacific, it feels like the play is just trying too hard to make this scientist’s life entertaining for the audience.
Feynman had many eccentric interests, from bongo playing, which he does on stage, and nude life drawing, but the play merely exploits these interests to make its case that scientists can be sexy and worth your time and money. In the end, Feynman’s writing was more interesting than the dramatic depiction of the man, which borders on hagiographic and sentimental.
The rare moment of gravitas is when Feynman speaks about his work on the atomic bomb: “We sinned because we enjoyed solving the problem of the bomb.”
Feynman speaks eloquently about how he and his fellow scientists got lost in the puzzle of solving the problem and lost sight of the larger moral picture: “You stop thinking,” he reflects. If this moment was lingered on, that might have given the play more depth.
Feynman tells the audience that he learned how to think and question everything, which fuels the scientific spirit, from his Father, a Russian immigrant. When the Father dies of a stroke, the rabbi wants Feynman to say Kaddish, but he refuses, to his mother’s chagrin, because he does not believe in such myths of religion, of heaven.
Feyman’s great contribution to science and to humanistic thought is his humility and curiosity in the face of the vast mystery that is life. “You can’t quantify uncertainty,” he says.
“Nature permits us to calculate only probabilities” but life is about possibility, Feynman repeatedly suggests. One can find more of his quirky and engaging approach to life and to science in his collection of essays, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!.
In the play, when Feynman talks about learning how to draw, he waxes poetic: “I’m in scientific awe at the glories of the universe expressed in a drawing.” Then he adds, with perfect Yiddish borsch-belt timing, “also, there were the nude models.” I wish more moments were like this light particle in an otherwise muddy monologue.
The Lantern Theater is located at St. Stephen’s Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets, Philadelphia. QED will be running until December 14.
Tickets cost between $22 and $39 and are available at the Theatre’s website or by calling the box office: (215) 820 – 0395. Mention The Philadelphia Jewish Voice for group rate tickets Sunday, November 30. Discounts are also available for seniors 65 and up, groups of 10 or more and U.S. military personnel.
Student rush tickets are available for $20, cash only, 10 minutes before curtain.