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NY Theater Reviews

Lydia Barnett-Mulligan and Rob Campbell/Ph: Joan Marcus


By Diane Snyder

What could be more timely than a play that examines the potential destructiveness of science when ethical concerns go unheeded? But The Physicists isn't that play

One of the scientist-madmen in Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Physicists claims to see visions of King Solomon. That biblical reference echoes throughout this Cold War-era cautionary tale about science gone crazy, not unlike the voice of the playwright bellowing his message through his characters.

Despite lapses into preachiness, Durrenmatt's work is also an absurd and potentially farcical exploration of science's destructive potential when ethical concerns go unheeded. The Swiss playwright was responding to the dawn of the atomic age, the ramifications of which we're still dealing with today.

Director Kevin O' Rourke's scattered, unbalanced production doesn't fully attain either the playful or the polemic possibilities of a work (translated by James Kirkup) that even with the best of productions wouldn't stand up to microscopic dramaturgical scrutiny.

Not only does the play sometimes feel like two inharmonious halves hastily sewn together, but watching the cast - a commingling of A-list veterans with students from the Williams College Summer Theatre Lab - is like feasting on a meal comprised of Spam and caviar. The students, some of whom have sizable supporting roles in the first act, show promise, but they're not up to the level of the professionals.

O'Rourke gets solid performances from Williamstown artistic director Roger Rees and Mark Blum as seemingly lunatic scientists masquerading, respectively, as Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, and, most notably, Rob Campbell as the conscious-ridden Solomon-seeing one.

To be reminded of the wise and prosperous king whose fall came when he stopped fearing God in an age when science and technology are increasingly usurping our spiritual sides seems like the duty of theater, but in this production it feels too much like work.