The Physicists by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, translated by James Kirkup. Directed by Kevin O’Rourke.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"What is thought cannot be unthought."
Roger Rees as Newton, Rob Campbell as Mobius and Mark Blum as Einstein; photo: Joan Marcus
Brenda Wehle as Dr. von Zahnd and John Feltch as Police Inspector Fox; photo: Joan Marcus
Seen at the first public performance prior to opening!
Swiss-born playwright and mystery author Friedrich Dürrenmatt was, and is, best known for two plays written and produced before the one currently running at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, "The Visit," and "Romulus." By the time his play, The Physicists" appeared on Broadway he had already made his mark and his philosophy about his creations, "A story is not finished until it has taken the worst turn" was the anticipated direction for his work to take. He did not disappoint with this play. As is very clear in the new production the play could easily end at the mid-point in the second act where the three Physicists incarcerated at The Cherry Trees Asylum accept their fates and retire to their rooms. It is almost, but not quite, a happy ending for three troubled individuals. Dürrenmatt, however, is never satisfied with the easy, happy finale and so the play continues into its deepest and darkest depths.
As he did with "The Visit" which the acting team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne made their very own, "The Physicists" uses comedy to introduce vile concepts and evil doings. He strings his audience along with the lightest of amusements while underscoring all of that with evil-doings, wrong-thinking and harmful human wranglings. Deals are struck over a gourmet dinner with fine wine. Guns are prompters for amusements. Concealed brandy is a relaxant that never eases the fears and pains. Music plays its role in soothing the savage breast. Psychiatry is an intrigue that confounds authorities and authoritarianism is the control mechanism of science.
When this play hit Broadway in 1964 it went to another famous married team of players, like the Lunts, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. With a stellar cast that included George Voscovec, Robert Shaw, Frances Heflin and Roberts Blossom it was a flop, lasting only 55 performances. It has not had a long professional life in this country since that time. It is wonderful to have a chance to see it, even in this cut and diminished version.
Three Physicists, as noted, reside in the old wing of an asylum under the watchful eye of a hump-backed autocratic psychiatrist named Mathilda von Zahnd. One physicist believes himself to be Sir Isaac Newton, another that he is Albert Einstein. The third is Jonathan William Mobius who sometimes sees, and sometimes is, King Solomon. The oddity that unites these men is their reality, for under their illusions about themselves they really are physicists and beyond that reality lies yet another.
Newton is played with nuance, outrageous subtlety and a wonderful sense of humor by Roger Rees. Whether bewigged or not, his character’s characters are constant surprises and his comments about disguise and accent are gloriously rendered. Einstein has been taken on by actor Mark Blum who makes us wonder about the full-range of sanity each time he puts in an appearance. He shuffles, hums, moves about in a way that alerts us to something underneath, but his happy surprises come when least expected. Rob Campbell plays Mobius. Mobius is the youngest of the group, yet the longest resident of the asylum. Campbell's style is blatant, explosive, funny and touching, sometimes all at the very same moment. If we doubt anyone’s sanity it is our own as we watch him manipulate his situation time and again and make us believe in him.
The good doctor is undertaken by Brenda Wehle in a performance that makes a major impact here. Where Rees is subtly wicked, she is pernicious. Where Blum defines sanity, she defines madness. Where Campbell is blatant, she is obstreperous. Both character and actress make their marks in ways that go beyond the simple definitions of the words used to describe them. It is a glorious performance, unrestrained and yet in check.
John Feltch is the police inspector. His role in this is to define the official line on murders committed by madmen. They are straightforward, usually involving a loved one, and they are symblomatic of the world in which scientists and thinkers reside. Feltch is a delight in this role, a fan of life and the good things it can provide. He is an excellent counterpoint for the Doctor, their ideals and goals so different and yet so in sync with one another.
The rest of the cast are fine. Cary Donaldson in his two roles is well-defined. Lydia Barnett-Mulligan makes the most out of her moments as Monica Stettler and Meggie Nidever is a fine Mrs. Rose. Morgan Phillips-Spotts has fun as Sister Boll, but could take her a bit further into the rigidity the role demands.
Played in the Center Theatre space at the ‘62 Center at Williams College, this production has excellent design values aiding it, with a superb set by Alexander Dodge, perfectly wonderful costumes designed by Deborah A. Brothers and excellent lighting by Colin K. Bills.
Director Kevin O’Rourke has brought all the visual forces to bear on this production, a far more successful outing for this play than the earlier Broadway edition. At one hour and 42 minutes the length helped to underscore the message of Dürrenmatt’s play. O’Rourke has used his considerable talents as an actor to find the right places, relationships and motivations in the script to enable his actors to create the joy, the menace and the fears that the playwright has dictated. It’s an excellent job by director and actors. Excellent.
There aren’t many opportunities to see "The Physicists." It has a limited run here, and should be seen by anyone interested in the stretching of the mind through laughter, concepts and ideals. An unusual summer offering, it must not be spurned.
THE PHYSICISTS runs August 7 – 18 with performances Tuesdays at 8:00, Wednesdays through Fridays at 8:15 and Saturdays at 5:30 with matinees Thursdays at 3:15, Saturdays at 1:00 and Sunday August 12 at 2:15. Tickets are $33 to $35 depending on the performance. Call the box office at 413-597-3400.