By Karen Isaacs
Einstein was a genius; everyone agrees. But Relativity the new play by Mark St. Germain now at TheaterWorks through Nov. 23, explores Einstein the husband, father and man.
In particular, the play deals with Einstein’s daughter Liserl who has been a mystery to Einstein biographers. Liserl was born before he and his first wife, Mileva Maric married. No definite proof seems to exist as to what happened to her; some believe she was raised by Maric’s relatives and others believe she was adopted.
Relativity – an obvious play on Einstein’s famous theory as well as the idea of relatives – opens in Princeton in the late ‘40s or early ’50. Einstein is now elderly though still working at the Institute while the FBI snoops around. Apparently J. Edgar Hoover was convinced Einstein was a security risk, possibly because he became active in anti-war and anti-bomb causes. His housekeeper/mistress Helen looks after him and regards most visitors with suspicion.
The play begins with Einstein meeting Margaret Harding who says she is a new reporter for a Jewish newspaper and wants to interview him. He finds the woman attractive and invites her home; Helen is immediately on guard.
What starts as a relatively normal interview soon veers off. It seems that Helen has done her homework and has talked with Einstein’s sons who don’t view him as “warm and fuzzy.” When he wants to cut short the interview she whips out a form that promises to let him review and reject anything she writes.
If you are convinced she isn’t who she seems to be, you are right. Her questions become more and more pointed; she seems to have lots of questions about Einstein’s parenting and marriage. The implication is that while Einstein may have been a genius, he was not a very nice man – an uninvolved father who wanted quiet and ignored his sons, and a philandering husband who demanded that the household revolve around his needs and desires.
It may not be a surprise that Margaret Harding is Liserl, the daughter who was given up for adoption. Though she claims her adoptive family was terrific and her father “a great man” who sacrificed a potentially life-changing commission as an artist to care for his wife – she seems intent on trying to get some acknowledgement from Einstein of his paternity and his failings. He admits the paternity.
St. Germain, whose plays often deal with historical characters, is attempting to raise a bigger issue here, which can be phrased in two ways. One, why do we assume that geniuses should also have sterling characters and moral compasses? The other question is related: do character flaws diminish the accomplishments of genius? After all Mozart wrote sublime music that can lift our spirits and thoughts yet he was a drunk, selfish, promiscuous man. Does the latter diminish or negate the former?
Richard Dreyfuss is Albert Einstein. Dreyfus know his way around a stage and it shows. But
this Einstein at times seems more like a cherub that the genius. He is by turns flirtatious, defensive, charming and remote. His moods swing and he can make an easy joke or give a cold stare. At times he reminds me of an almost Santa-like figure. He is both naïve and very aware; gullible and guarded.
If Dreyfuss gives us an Einstein who is less scientific genius and more playful old man, Christa Scott-Reed gives us a Margaret who seems both cruel and needy. She often plays the role as a prosecuting attorney. You can’t always buy her story of a happy adoptive family; the axe she has to grind is too huge.
Lori Wilner is Helen, whose role is to be both protective and at times the humorous foil for all that is going on around her.
The cast works superbly together. It is a minuet that is skillfully danced, thanks in large part to director Rob Ruggiero.
Brian Prather has created a wonderful set that shows Einstein’s office in his home with windows that look out onto snow-covered tree limbs. It feels warm and cozy. Alejo Vietti’s costume design are perfect for the period and remind us of how much more formal that period was.
In truth, Relativity is really a family drama about a daughter who feels deprived of her father’s love. What makes it unusual is that this father was Einstein.
While St. Germain toys with the larger issues, too often these are sacrificed for the domestic drama and the consoling ending. It seems that Einstein has a heart after all.
Relativity is an enjoyable 90 minutes in the theater in part due to the fine direction and acting. Yet, it could have been more.
It is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford through Nov. 23. For tickets, call 860-527-7838.