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Review: SOME BRIGHTER DISTANCE Is a Space Oddity at City Theatre

By: Feb. 04, 2016
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It's hard to fault a play for being too ambitious or having too many ideas, when so much entertainment today suffers from the opposite malady. City Theatre, long a haven for offbeat works or development of new plays, has the makings of a fascinating new memory play in Keith Reddin's new drama, Some Brighter Distance. Unfortunately, the glimmer of promise in the challenging text is somewhat muted by a need to do too much in too little time and space.

Reddin's play has a fascinating concept and underexplored subject matter: in 1984, German immigrant scientist Arthur Rudolph (Jonathan Tindle) is informed by United States government official Robert Davis (Leroy McClain) that he must leave his adopted country and return to Germany for criminal prosecution for involvement in Nazi atrocities. Rudolph, who has always claimed that he was merely a scientist, and thus granted amnesty during Operation Paperclip, insists his innocence, and the play hops between a chronological exploration of Rudolph's dedication to the art of rocketry, often at the expense of his relationship with wife Marta (Elizabeth Rich), and his interrogation in the "present day" of 1984.

Jonathan Tindle's role as Arthur Rudolph is a strangely compelling star turn. His quiet, almost mousy demeanor in the present, complete with weak eyes and rumpled, worn-out voice, contrasts believably with his more energetic, almost obsessive younger self in the heyday of his scientific explorations. Tindle's groan of a voice and precise physicalities as the older Rudolph recall actor-musician David Bowie's subtle characterizations in The Prestige and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Elizabeth Rich, as Marta Rudolph, plays the affable straight man to Tindle, keeping him tethered to the earth when his dreams would otherwise lift him away. There's a gentle humanity in her performance that is sometimes lacking in the intriguing yet otherworldly Tindle. It's obvious the two care about each other, but not immediately obvious why this is so.

The three supporting actors may have smaller roles, but they inhabit them ably. As Robert Davis, Leroy McClain simultaneously plays good cop and bad cop, all smooth, calm voice and increasingly direct insistence that Rudolph give himself up to justice. Playing his counterpart in the past, Major Turner, Matt Stocke could almost be McClain's inverse, filling the role with bombast and bravado as Turner willfully overlooks certain details of the scientist's past in order to successfully import him to the US. The flashiest of roles goes to Pittsburgh favorite, David Whalen, as Nazi scientist par excellence, Wernher Von Braun. Whalen, last seen in A Servant to Two Masters at Pittsburgh Public, gives Braun an intelligent yet cocky charm, portraying both the wisdom and charisma the aeronautics genius was reputed to possess in America and Nazi Germany alike.

Tracy Brigden's direction of this knotty, weighty work is speedy and well-managed, thanks in no small part to Gianni Downs's clever set. An enormous wall of files and cabinets opens to reveal doors and whole rooms, serves as a projection screen, and glows with subtle blinking lights like a scientist's control panel. Joe Pino's sound design is immersive and evocative (though a piece of light-orchestra music by Heinz Kiessling felt jarring due to the strong association of Kiessling's music with gross-out comedy It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), and Robert C. T. Steele's costumes are carefully designed to be both period-accurate and appropriate to both eras.

With so many good things about the show, the primary issue remaining is that there is simply too little time to explore it all adequately. Some Brighter Distance is never boring, but running under 90 minutes- clocking in at least a half hour shorter than the average length for movies now- it can sometimes grow blindingly dense. Aerospace engineering, Nazi atrocities, political loyalty, Operation Paperclip, the personal life of a driven man, government coercion and the rise of NASA could each fill a single play with compelling ideas and plotlines. Putting them all together risks information overload; at the performance I attended, audience members around me were mumbling softly to themselves, trying to keep up with the constant barrage of concepts. Brevity is the soul of wit, some say, but Some Brighter Distance has too much going on to be brief. Like the burgeoning aerospace industry of Cold War America, Reddin would be best served by looking upward and outward, not back in.


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