Review: Site-Specific INSIGNIFICANCE Played Out In A Luxury Hotel Room

By: Mar. 08, 2016
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Four years after its 1982 London premiere, Terry Johnson's intriguing dramatic fantasia, INSIGNIFICANCE, came to New York in a traditional proscenium stage Off-Broadway production. Inspired by the knowledge that an autographed photo of Albert Einstein was found among the deceased Marilyn Monroe's belongings, Johnson concocted a hotel room meeting between the two in a scenario that also involves Joe DiMaggio and Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Susannah Hoffman (Photo: Jenny Anderson)

Since the playwright freely fudged with facts and timelines, the characters are never mentioned by name, but there's no doubt about who and what they represent.

Director James Hiller and his London-based company Defibrillator has brought INSIGNIFICANCE back to New York in a site-specific production performed in a fifth-floor room of Fifth Avenue's posh Langham Place Hotel, a choice that not only enhances the play's intimacy, but adds a nice dose of quiet tension.

After a short period in an adjoining room for snacks and videos that help place mindsets back to 1953, the audience is escorted to a room occupied by Einstein, with rows of chairs on two sides.

Played as a disheveled mensch by Max Baker, Einstein is prepping to speak at a peace conference the next day, but receives a surprise visit from McCarthy (hard-boiled Michael Pemberton), to remind him that he's also been subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee tomorrow, and to hint at what may happen if he refuses to testify.

There's a knock on the door after the senator leaves and lo and behold, it's Hollywood's reigning film goddess, anxious to meet the brilliant brain after a full day of having her skirt blown up while standing over a subway grate. Accustomed to men who disregard her mind, Monroe has gathered up some toy props from the five and dime and, in the play's delightful showcase scene, uses them to demonstrate to the professor that she understands (most of) his Theory of Relativity.

Susannah Hoffman's wonderfully detailed Monroe is displayed as a highly polished star who can expertly work the mixture of innocence and sexuality that she plays for the camera into her real-life encounters. Up close you can see her subtly working every facial feature, physical gesture and tone of voice to captivate male attention.

Max Baker (Photo: Jenny Anderson)

After charming Einstein with her performance, Monroe makes it clear that her interest in the professor is more than just scientific. He's about to get an advanced chemistry lesson when there's another knock - make that a pounding - on the door.

Enter Joe DiMaggio (Anthony Comis), now a retired baseball idol who isn't adjusting well to being out of the spotlight while his wife is in it. Slickly groomed and handsome, but socially inept, he and his wife share little more than passion, and he doesn't understand her thirst for higher learning and Einstein's scientific visions that fascinate her so.

When McCarthy returns the next morning to make sure the professor testifies, the combination of politics, sex, brute strength and knowledge makes for a combustible mixture.

Though there are plot twists and coincidences that are a bit hard to believe, INSIGNIFICANCE works well as a good story rather than as a significant play. The audience's familiarity with the characters ups the entertainment value as does the choice to go site-specific. A fun change of pace, well-played and well-staged.


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