BWW Review: RELATIVITY by Mark St. Germain at Penguin Repertory Theatre

RELATIVITY by Mark St. Germain

Penguin Repertory Theatre

Mark St. German has a formula. He takes a world-famous figure, does extraordinary research until he comes upon a little-know (or unknown) part of their life, and then crafts a taunt drama around it.

He did so with Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis, and Dr. Ruth Westheimer, very successfully and now he has turned his focus to a little-know story about the early life of Albert Einstein - the name "Relativity" is a clever play on words about the play's subject. The beginning of the play is chock full of famous Einstein quotes and insights, which tell us more about his public persona than his private one - but that is all about to change when he encounters a writer ostensibly representing Jewish Weekly, but who quickly reveals herself to be someone much more intriguing.

St. Germain deftly works the concept of relativity into the text of the work in two separate veins. He gives the audience the requisite picture of the Einstein that the whole world has come to know: the mad genius with the crazy hair, the caricature Einstein that the scientist put out to the public. He's like a stuffed animal, cute and cuddly - but one that marches to his own drummer and refuses to behave according to the strict confines of conventional society - largely because he can. His genius may have changed the world, but he was also a serial philanderer, deeply misogynistic and as he states in the play, "Every human relationship I have is a chain around my neck!"

BWW Review: RELATIVITY by Mark St. Germain at Penguin Repertory Theatre
Robert Zuckerman

His whole world view is turned upside down when his version of the Einstein mythology is questioned by the reporter, who seems to know a good deal more of the details of his intimate life than he expected.

Cold War politics is touched upon repeatedly - as the scientist looks out his window at FBI agents who keep him under constant surveillance and pick through his garbage searching for anything incriminating. Incriminating? As Einstein clearly states: "I am for free speech and against racism and war, what could be more un-American!" The paranoia that surrounded Einstein (his famous pacifism and connections to communists) when he arrived in America in 1933 is alluded to but never fully explained and feels a bit perfunctory and forced.

The question of whether a great man must also be a good man is not a new one and relatively (no pun intended) little new light is shed on that central idea. play only hits its stride when Mr. St. Germain tightens the focus away from the Cold War politics and "Einstein-isms" and settles on the central conflict at the heart of the story.

At the start of the play its clear that Dr. Einstein is a hermit who enjoys his privacy and his routines - which are jealously guarded by his secretary/lover/housekeeper Helen Dukas (Susan Pellegrino). His perfect world is turned upside down during a tension-filled visit by a bothersome reporter, Margaret Harding (Celeste Ciulla). At first, Einstein (Robert Zuckerman) plays Einstein - the affable, "bumbling professor cum genius" who likes to quote himself and talk to his pet parrot. But the action takes a much more unsettling turn as the reporter's questions grow increasingly personal. Einstein finally pushes back: "What is this? An interview or an interrogation?" Suddenly, the real motive for her interview comes to light and the play takes off.

BWW Review: RELATIVITY by Mark St. Germain at Penguin Repertory Theatre
Robert Zukerman & Celeste Ciulla

What does she really want from him? The banter between Harding and Einstein gets heated and considerably more interesting as she picks his brain about issues he never thought he'd have to answer to. She proves herself to be more than a match for the scientist's deflections and accusations, keeping him on topic despite his anger and discomfort with the discussion. He rallies when he implores her to consider all the good he has done and the destruction of humanity that he has helped the world avoid - which she counters by pointing out all the thoughtless, and selfish personal damage he has done to his family and loved ones in the process.

Each time they approach an emotional climax, Dukas arrives to break the tension and force them to regroup. Dukas serves a pivotal role in the play, providing some lighthearted moments, but also arguing that Einstein is a truly great man and cannot be judged by society's pedestrian mores and folkways.

Director Joe Brancato has a wealth of experience with St. Germain play and does a superb job of keeping the characters moving, circling each other like prizefighters, keeping the stakes high and the action intense.

Brian Prather's set is perfect, conveying the Princeton home-office of Einstein with all the appropriate touches of clutter and hominess one would expect of a great genius.

Relativity and relatives were the bane of Albert Einstein's existence. The play is based in part on the controversy surrounding Lieserl Einstein, Einstein's daughter who was completely unknown to the world before 1986, when old letters were discovered by Einstein's granddaughter Evelyn.

What St. Germain ultimately shows the audience is that no family no matter who famous or wealthy is exempt from dysfunction and drama. "Relativity" goes into a lot of dark places and asks very hard questions without trying to answer them - rather it simply states the questions and provides theories about them - much like the life and work of its central character, and it does so in seriously entertaining fashion.

"Relativity" runs through June 10th.

Penguin Rep Theatre
7 Crickettown Road, P.O. Box 91, Stony Point, NY |

- Peter Danish

Photos: Chris Yacopino

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