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Hackin’ and Coffin 

QED offers gags, but not much wit; The Wooden Breeks is both fun and funereal

Wednesday, Mar 28 2001
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Perhaps Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize–winning Caltech physicist who died in 1988 — and the subject of the stage homage QED — knew of a mathematical equation that could explain massive exertions of energy that go nowhere, for that’s what’s currently on display at the Mark Taper Forum.

Feynman was certainly an intriguing character, a brilliant yet down-to-earth explorer and information hound, too eccentric and candid to mingle effortlessly in elite circles. He worked on the Manhattan Project, then came up with a landmark proof in quantum physics challenging Einstein’s conclusion that light consists of particles rather than waves, lobbing the apple back into Newton’s court. When serving on a committee investigating the crash of the space shuttle Challenger, and despite intense pressure from the military, Feynman refused to sign the official report glorifying NASA. Through all this and three marriages, Feynman played bongo drums, enjoyed the company of many women, took small parts in Caltech theater productions, was a passable sketch artist, and concocted an endearingly goofy strategy with his friend, Ralph Leighton, to visit Terra Tuva — at the time, a tiny, almost unknown Soviet republic that Feynman knew about from a postage stamp in his childhood collection. Why go? The capital, Kyzyl, has no vowels, and such a place “must be interesting.”

Feynman and Leighton’s unsuccessful efforts to beat the clock — to get to Tuva before Feynman’s terminal cancer fells him — are the basis of Leighton’s memoir, Tuva or Bust!, as well as of a poignant documentary film, The Last Journey of a Genius, presented by Boston public-television station WGBH. Six years ago, Alan Alda brought Tuva or Bust! to director Gordon Davidson, who, in turn, commissioned Peter Parnell (The Cider House Rules) to turn Leighton’s book and/or Feynman’s saga into a stage play. Following several incarnations, the play, originally involving a cast of several characters, has simmered down to a one-man star turn — perfect for the famously expensive Broadway stage. (True, a young female student, played by Allison Smith, appears in each of the play’s two acts, but that really doesn’t make QED any less of a solo performance by Alda.)

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QED is set in Feynman’s Caltech office, on a Saturday night in 1986 — Act 1 before his performance as the ceremonial dance chief of Bali-Hai in the college-theater production of South Pacific, Act 2 after the post-show party. While in his office, Alda’s personable quipper of an eccentric college professor must accomplish a number of tasks in short turn: entertain the Taper’s audience with a series of folksy pontifications on the “constant attempt we make to describe nature”; prepare a lecture entitled, modestly, “What We Know”; keep a precocious student (Smith) at bay; field telephone calls from, among others, his wife, Leighton (at the airport greeting a delegation of inebriated Russians who could help get them to Tuva) and a pair of doctors (regarding treatments for a malignant, and rapidly growing, tumor). And oh yes, I almost forgot: grapple with the philosophical implications of his mortality.

In the midst of which, Feynman, as unknowable and erratic as those photons to which he keeps referring, must choose whether or not to undergo a dangerous surgery. This is QED’s most glaring misstep, for it imposes the contrivance of an urgent, life-or-death choice, for which time is quickly running out, upon what is essentially a standup routine (albeit a heady one). The consequence of this Crucial Decision — as though helicoptered in from a play by Arthur Miller, Ibsen or even Sophocles — is hollow melodrama, for none of it seems to make much difference in terms of the play we’re actually watching.

Under Davidson’s direction, in Act 1, Alda is unbelievably perky for a man with a tumor strangling his one remaining kidney. Then, in Act 2, he compensates by being unbelievably morose for a man so cognizant of — and gamely inquisitive about — the workings of life, even when they involve death. Meanwhile, Ms. Smith’s stilted turn as the intoxicated student with a penchant for cavorting to the beat of bongo drums (who says college has to be dreary?) is just one in a stream of inept female performances on the Taper stage over the past season. Which raises questions of what’s going on with the casting department over there, or with the directors’ ability to work with women.

Poetically, QED tries to link the unpredictable motions of photons to those of its central character. The idea might have paid off were the play a more earnest attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible. Such was the case with Margaret Edson’s Wit (presented locally last year at the Geffen Playhouse and now in Mike Nichols’ production, starring Emma Thompson and currently premiering on HBO), the story of a cantankerous female scholar (an expert in the sonnets of 17th-century poet John Donne) who suddenly finds herself friendless in a hospital, undergoing brutal treatment for ovarian cancer. She, like Feynman, lives to investigate the abstract, though, unlike in QED, a single, poetical strand, originating from Donne’s verses, subtly weaves itself through her deathwatch. Also, unlike QED, Wit somehow achieves its humor without wisecracking through the pain; nor does it wallow in its grief, as does Alda’s cracked-voice rendering of the love letter Feynman wrote to his late first wife, 40 years before the play’s action. And finally, QED is credited to Parnell, but is actually a collaborative effort involving both Davidson and Alda over several rewrites/reconceptualizations, whereas Wit is a first play by a writer who was evidently clear at the outset about her tone and her intention.

Parnell, based on his earlier work, is clearly no hack, although the difference between being a freelance artist and a scribe-for-hire suggests a lot about the difference in quality between Wit and QED.

Much like Feynman, a character named Hoother (Matthew Fox) in Glen Berger’s The Wooden Breeks (at Hollywood’s Open Fist Theater) lives to increase and refine his descriptions of nature. Holed up sometime during the 19th century in a Gothic lighthouse in the fictitious Scottish town of Brood, he pores over illustrated appendices of “Ferguson and Ives’ Inventory of Natural Things” — the latest of which concerns “Moths and How They Flap.” (You may remember Berger and his flair for madcap scientists from Great Men of Science, Nos. 21 & 22, produced in 1998 by Circle X Theater Company.)

Hoother hasn’t been out of his tower in years when a beautiful traveling saleswoman named Spoon (Martha Demson) finally challenges his agoraphobia by sending him various missives, along with live bluebells to add to his collection of flower illustrations. Quite a few of the male townsfolk are falling for Spoon, thereby falling in step with her strategy to meet her sales quota.

Berger’s allegorical carnival, a stylistic blend of Charles Dickens and Dylan Thomas, is all about clawing out of the boxes fate insists we occupy, about the fear of living death rather than living life. And indeed, among the scandals of The Wooden Breeks’ era were reports, both as rumors and in the popular press, of scratch marks on the inside of coffins, creating a general panic that people were being buried alive. Which explains why Spoon is hawking a “bell device” that reaches down through the earth and into one’s coffin, so that should one awake while terminally confined, one can simply ring for assistance. (Here, perhaps, lies the origin of the term “cold comfort.” “Breeks,” on the other hand, is colloquial for “trousers,” while the “wooden breeks” of the title was a period expression for coffins.)

An intricate plot lands Spoon inside a coffin with a broken “device.” (Sales reps, beware of quotas.) Though the play involves a three-hour trudge through some thick Celtic atmosphere, Dan Fields’ direction turns the playwright’s nimble ironies, robust language and theme of entrapment into sharp, even visceral focus. Berger writes beautifully, and Fields’ vivacious staging includes metal puppets, Philip White’s vivid original score, Van Broughton Ramsey’s pleasingly murky costumes and Dona Marquet’s stone-and-rust multipurpose set. Plus grand performances also by Bart Tangredi, Rob Moore, Seth Ullian, Russell Milton, Shana Wride, Irene Tassiopulos and Adam LeBow.

QED | By PETER PARNELL | Presented by the MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through May 13

THE WOODEN BREEKS | By GLEN BERGER | Presented by OPEN FIST THEATER, 1625 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood | Through April 21

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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