By: Samuel L. Leiter
September 9, 2022: String theory, M theory, the Big Bang, quantum theory, gravity. thermodynamics, waves, electrons, protons, subatomic particles, parallel universes, relativity, Schrödinger’s Cat, the Blackbody Experiment, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle . . . if physics and cosmology be the food of love, play on. But, if like me, you’re lost in the stars when served with an army of such concepts, even when valiant attempts are made to make them digestible, you’ll find that Strings Attached, a new play by Carole Buggé—a mystery novelist who writes under three different pennames—for Pulse Theatre at Theatre Row, may leave you not with a bang, big or not, but with a whimper.
Apropos of that last phrase, however, you’ll also get several soupcons of verse from T.S. Eliot and other poets (not to mention a choral version of “Food, Glorious Food,” from Oliver) in this ambitious, eccentric, and frustratingly tiresome attempt to dramatize human relationships by analogy with scientific theories.
Not that that hasn’t been done before, of course, as in plays like Constellations, Einstein’s Dreams, or—albeit more subtly—Heisenberg. In Strings Attached—loosely based on an actual 1999 train ride by three theorizing scientists—the ideas emerge from the brains of a beautiful American woman, June (Robyne Parrish), a rock-climbing cosmologist, and two British gents, Rory (Brian Richardson), another cosmologist, and George (Paul Schoeffler), a physicist. They’re heading by train to London from a conference at Cambridge to see Michael Frayn’s play about scientists, Copenhagen. Strings Attached owes several debts of dramatic gratitude to Frayn’s vastly superior work.
June and George are married, but June is also sleeping with Rory, but not without guilt. Both jealousy and class consciousness strain the men’s relationships; George is upper-class, Rory working-class. Moreover, Rory’s advocacy of the M theory is at odds with George’s support for string theory. To add some deeper emotional issue to the situation, June still can’t shake the memory of a tragedy when she lost a loved one in a train crash. In keeping with the parallel universe idea, the second half of the play tells a similar story but with June now married to Rory, and George the marital interloper. As the plot thickens, the characters squeeze in commentary on the conflict between science and religion. And, ultimately, M and strings get a big bang for working out their differences.
Be that as it may, this is no ordinary train, and, despite the essentially realistic trappings of the plot, dialogue, and characters, three historically important, but long dead, scientists—each a favorite of one of the present-day characters—step into the compartment to banter and discuss scientific issues with the others: Sir Isaac Newton (Jonathan Hadley), Marie Curie (Bonnie Black), and Max Planck (Russell Saylor).
As if that weren’t enough, the action is also disrupted by the annoying entrances of, first, a Ukrainian couple (Ms. Black and Mr. Saylor), and then an American couple (the same actors), each played with bizarrely caricaturish overkill, and wearing equally ridiculous costumes created by Elena Vannoni. Cartoonish as they are, each couple was in attendance at the conference. Moreover, the dryly sardonic conductor (Mr. Hadley) seems as hip to the discourse as anyone, answering the several scientifically oriented “how many [fill in the blank] does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” questions before anyone else can.
The blend of styles, from farce to fantasy to realism, at least with this cast, is beyond director Alexis Kelly’s ability to pull off; her actors range from so-so to earnest to respectable (Jonathan Hadley’s Newton comes off best); some of the casting is unconvincing; and Jessica Parks’s set design (supplemented by Katerina Vitaly’s video design) is seriously problematic. Given the choice to provide a barebones environment, wherein, as per the stage directions, the set could be as simple as four chairs, Ms. Parks offers a train compartment with an upstage sliding-door entrance, but with the sidewalls fanned out on an angle, each with four, red-cushioned seats. This concession to the impossibility of effectively occupying a stage with such a small room results in what looks more like an old-fashioned waiting room—with ugly wallpaper—than a compartment on a train run by British Rail. A dining car might have made a more flexible environment.
Strings Attached is supposed to run an hour and 45 minutes; it took a bit longer than that on opening night because of what perhaps were technical problems. Perhaps in a parallel universe, someone has not only written a better play, but also one that runs on time.
Pulse Theatre, Theatre Four, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, NYC.
For tickets call (212) 714-2442, ext. 45, or go online.
Everyone must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination and a photo ID to enter the building and must wear a mask at all times when inside.
Through Saturday, October 1, 2022
Photography: John Quilty