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As Time Goes Bye-Bye 

Circle X Theater Company and Pacific Resident Theater get metaphysical

Wednesday, Dec 1 1999
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Any Surrealist in good standing has to love nuclear physics. First Albert Einstein suggests that time gets a bit loopy out in the cosmos, crumpling like tissue paper within black holes. Then we learn in quantum mechanics that the motion of subatomic particles is impossible to measure and that time tends to evaporate -- a detail of inner space that can’t be mathematically reconciled to Einstein‘s view of outer space, in which time weighs heavily. And in the weird science’s latest revolution, we‘re being served up ”string theory,“ with its remarkable capacity to describe inner and outer space with a common mathematical rubric, as quarks and their ilk are replaced by minute resonating ”strings“ and a universe with 11 dimensions (most of which we can neither perceive sensorially, nor comprehend).

No, this isn’t going to affect your drive to the theater, although it may well have some bearing on what you see once you get there. For string theory heralds the discomfiting notion that time, as we have always understood it, is a mirage. Or at least time doesn‘t pass so much as it arrives in spurts and splashes, if at all. Which means that effects may have considerably less to do with causes than we have presumed. Which means that most of the plotlines we find so recognizable and credible in ”realistic“ films, plays and history books may, unwittingly, be as whimsical as a poem by e.e. cummings or a story by Lewis Carroll, a painting by Salvador Dali or a play by Eugene Ionesco.

This is great news for playwrights like Paul Mullin, whose dreamplay Louis Slotin Sonata is receiving its premiere in an appealing, carefully wrought production by Circle X Theater Company at Hollywood’s Court Theater. Mullin‘s title character is a somewhat clumsy quantum mechanic -- a nuclear physicist, to be precise -- screwing around and screwing up with plutonium cores in 1946 Los Alamos. The author will give us a snippet of dialogue, then, a few seconds later, repeat some but not all of that same snippet, thereby splintering the moment and, in a sense, time itself. In other words, the dialogue becomes a schematic replica of the nuclear reactions being discussed by the scientist characters.

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Meanwhile, a chorus of lab-coated techies lindy-hop through a jazzy dream sequence of nuclear fission; a black soldier tells of landing with the U.S. amphibious forces at Normandy, of miraculously dashing -- past German bullets and shrapnel that are downing his compatriots -- all the way to Auschwitz, where Dr. Mengele cuts him open with a scalpel, thereby unleashing the spirit of the title character, a Canadian Jew. This is the kind of dream logic -- in which sense is derived less from sequential events than from the splashes of ideas and the resonance of images -- employed in novels by Thomas Pynchon and plays by Tony Kushner.

Based on a true story, Louis Slotin Sonata opens with the brilliant ”cowboy“ Slotin (William Salyers, supremely glib until his character begins to pay the price for hubris) showing off by demonstrating the ”Crick test,“ which induces a minor nuclear reaction, for a newcomer to the lab (Daniel Bryant). The other lab personnel euphemistically refer to the test as ”tickling the dragon’s tail,“ although, on this occasion, the dragon ”tickles“ back: As Slotin slides a screwdriver between two metal termini, twisting it like a throttle to accelerate the reaction, he‘s suddenly bathed in a mortal blast of radiation. (The accident is staged several times in varying styles, one of which -- the ”official“ version as reported in the newsrags -- is a sly parody of ’40s propaganda flicks, in which ”heroic“ Slotin is portrayed as sacrificing himself in order to save the lives of his colleagues.)

Mullin‘s play is structured as a chronicle of Slotin’s agonizing demise in the accident‘s aftermath, punctuated with deathbed visits by compassionate colleague Philip Morrison (Connor Trinneer, who doubles as a crusty Harry Truman); by Slotin’s devout Jewish father (John Combs); by nurse Annamae Dickie (Ariana Navarre), who, rather prosaically, takes a shine to the doomed physicist; by the visages of Oppenheimer (Chris Lo Prete) and Einstein (Tim Sabourin); and finally by the fantasies that emerge from Slotin‘s morphine-addled brain. All of which serves as pretext for launching some heady philosophical polarities -- man and God, creation and destruction, faith and science -- into orbit.

Louis Slotin Sonata is not a great play -- Mullin is more of a philosopher than he is a poet -- but it’s an awfully good one, communicated with an infectious love of paradox. The question at its core dates back to Greek tragedy -- how can someone so smart do something so dumb? -- an allegorical if not rhetorical question about our capacity to play God.

The idea‘s innate lyricism is diminished somewhat by Mullin’s tendency to overexplain. Slotin adores a Mozart piano sonata, which we hear in moments throughout the action, in tender counterpoint to the accident‘s horrific fallout. But Slotin has to tell us about the music’s complexity, and the wonders of creativity, as though that weren‘t apparent from the mere sounds of the piano.

Yet in a closing scene in which Slotin’s father, after reciting the Kaddish for his deceased son, is asked to approve of an autopsy -- against the faith, for the science -- drama and symbol couldn‘t be more delicately interwoven.

The staging, by Jim Anzide and Jonathan Westerberg, is another in a series of efforts by Circle X to present works of ferocious intelligence with the kind of imaginative yard-sale minimalism that has come to define the troupe’s aesthetic. Gary Smoot‘s set, mere platforms and a gurney through Act 1, suddenly sprouts green balloons in Act 2 that glow in the dark like, yes, radioactive nuclei. Who said the apocalypse can’t arrive with some wit?

Simon Gray‘s 1977 Otherwise Engaged (at Pacific Resident Theater) offers a glimpse back to a time when metaphysics in the theater was still sneaking out from under the rug of the domestic dramas and farces of the ’30s and ‘40s. While the French supported the likes of Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett, and the Italians had Luigi Pirandello, the English -- a decade or more later, actually -- produced Harold Pinter and his literary cousin, Gray. Determined to expose the limitations of our ability to have an original thought, these playwrights shared a penchant for slicing sentences into gibberish and absurd repetitions, thereby revealing how our phrases and actions, ergo our ideas, are for the most part programmed by habit, and constitute a mask covering spiritual desolation.

Otherwise Engaged is about the oppositions of marriage and contentment, of words and wisdom. Like the protagonists in so many of Gray’s plays (Butley, Close of Play, Quartermaine‘s Terms), London book publisher Simon Hench (Kevin Quinn) is a bright and superficially cheerful man who hungers to be lifted up and away from a bickering world filled with so much petty intrigue, even success resembles failure. Where Hench’s schoolteacher brother (Stuart W. Howard) -- a graduate of second-tier Redding College -- yearns to be appointed assistant schoolmaster ahead of an Oxford-educated rival, Hench somehow just can‘t get into the competitive spirit. Instead, he emotionally glides right over such concerns.

Specifically, Hench loves his Wagner the way Louis Slotin loves his Mozart. In the attempt to spend a blissful evening with a scratchy recording of Parsifal, he hasn’t absorbed more than the first measure or two before he‘s interrupted by any number of visitors: the aforementioned brother, a seductress writer (Andi Carnick) who parades topless in his living room to secure a book contract, an alcoholic literary critic (the robustly energetic Stephen Hoye), a student tenant (Frank Castrina), a suicidal former classmate (Lawrence Arancio, in a starchy yet pathos-filled performance) and, finally, his wife, Beth (the marvelous Stacie Chaiken), who may be having an affair (an issue that renders Otherwise Engaged something of a parlor drama after all). The question of the affair -- Beth’s ability to express it, Hench‘s ability to absorb it -- is at the crux of what Hench denigrates as ”this overexplanatory age.“ For Hench, his marriage ”arrangement“ is easier to take without words. Interesting, considering he’s a publisher.

Michael Rothhaar‘s direction is persuasive, if far from impeccable. Some of the repartee -- e.g., ”Some sherry if you have it“ ”Yes, I have“ ”Then some sherry if I may“ ”Yes, you may“ -- is not yet lighting sparks. Castrina’s yobbish student is an emotive force with a disconcertingly wobbly dialect. And perhaps it does take an Alan Bates (who opened the play in ‘77) to create a Hench who’s fully settled into his surroundings; though Quinn is very good, the artifice of his English persona shows like a shirt that‘s not quite tucked in. On the other hand, the women in the cast light up the stage.

Truly impressive is Rothhaar’s ability to paint the play‘s symmetrical architecture with a lightness that keeps the production floating. This is in part attributable to Victoria Profitt’s lavishly detailed set, with its sky-blue walls. The sky, after all, is where Hench longs to be engaged.

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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