Was Einstein made of wood?

Was Einstein made of wood?

Richard Kent Green as a young Einstein offers a snack and a theory to his friend Besso, played by Grant Kretchik.

Is it possible to stage a dramatically rich, thought-provoking, and informative play about a great revolution in scientific thinking?

Judging by the off-Broadway production of “Einstein” at the Theatre at St. Clement’s, the answer, sadly, is no. Jay Prasad’s new play, woodenly directed by Randolph Curtis Rand, feels like a barely dramatized Wikipedia article on Einstein’s life and work. The script marches stolidly through his young adulthood in Berne, when he worked as a bureaucrat in the government patent office while he developed his theory of relativity, on to his move to Germany and finally to the United States, as an acclaimed genius.

Although there is a lot of expository talk about Einstein’s overthrowing the accepted theories of Newton and Maxwell, the play doesn’t capture the truly revolutionary quality of his thought – perhaps no play can – or plumb deeply into who he was as a man. Richard Kent Green plays Einstein as the stereotypical absent-minded professor, staring off into space as people talk to him, but that may be because Einstein established the stereotype. It must be almost impossible to dramatize the process of thinking deeply about the nature of the universe. What would you show on stage? Prasad attempts to explain the differences between Einstein’s theory and Newton’s mechanistic view of the universe through Einstein’s conversations with his friend Besso (played very well by Grant Kretchik), but the audience is left as mystified as Besso looks. Or maybe that’s a dazed expression. Dialogue that is primarily exposition quickly becomes stupefying, and that’s mostly what we get in “Einstein.”

Einstein’s answer to someone asking him what he cares about besides his work is pacifism and Zionism. Again, these passions don’t seem to come from anywhere very deep. Although he says that he believes the Jews need a home of their own, he also says that he feels thoroughly European, unbound by national borders. That’s an interesting contradiction that merited more examination. Prasad does spend a fair amount of time on Einstein’s womanizing, his cavalier disregard for his children, and his essential abandonment of his first wife, Mileva. Einstein has an eye for a pretty girl and seems to need a woman to see to his basic needs, such as regular meals and clean clothes. He has a big ego and resists theories such as quantum mechanics and the big bang. What are we to make of that? The deeper question here is does it matter whether Einstein was a nice guy or a good husband or devoted father? Surely, there are plenty of those, but how many minds exist capable of re-imagining natural reality?

Prasad has written plays about scientists Bertram Russell and Alan Turing, so clearly he is knowledgeable and interested in science. In “Einstein,” he has not yet succeeded in vivifying abstract concepts and bringing to life the man who conceived them.

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