Review: “Insignificance” at Langham Place

David Roberts

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”  (W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming’)

In Terry Johnson’s “Insignificance,” currently running in Room 505 at “Langham Place” in New York City (the first staging as a site-specific play), four iconic individuals collide in a top-notch hotel in Manhattan in 1953. The Professor is preparing to speak at the Conference for World Peace. The Senator, discovering the Professor’s whereabouts, visits the Professor to subpoena him to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The Actress, who always wanted to meet the Professor, is being pursued by her fans and hides in the Professor’s room. Billy Wilder is filming a scene of the film “The Seven Year Itch” on Lexington Avenue between 52nd and 53rd Street in New York City and the Actress is tired of having “her dress blown up around her ears.” The Ballplayer just wants a stable relationship with his wife the Actress.

Photo by Jenny Anderson

Photo by Jenny Anderson

What is insignificant is that these four characters – played with sublime craft by Max Baker (The Professor), Michael Pemberton (The Senator), Susannah Hoffman (The Actress), and Anthony Comis (The Ballplayer) -  are clearly meant to be, respectively, Albert Einstein, Joseph McCarthy, Marilyn Monroe, and Joe DiMaggio. Ultimately, each of these characters is an “Everyman” teetering on the brink of the unthinkable drowning of “the ceremony of innocence.” Under James Hillier’s impeccable direction, each actor captures the soul of their character with depth, authenticity, and honesty. Watching Susannah Hoffman portray Marilyn’s explanation of the Specific Theory of Relativity to its discoverer is spellbinding and not soon to be forgotten.

What is significant is that these characters are tropes for four of America’s most important sectors: the Sciences, the Arts, Politics, and Sports. These are the pursuits meant to “save” us and keep us safe. They are collectively humanity’s hope and source for the surcease of all things falling apart.

What is significant is that Mr. Johnson’s script is wonderfully complex and replete with layer upon layer of meaning. The Professor has seen Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” and quotes Proctor, “Because it is my name,” in defense of his refusal to meet the Senator’s demands to testify. In 1953, Arthur Miller's play "The Crucible" ran on Broadway at the Martin Beck. It was written in response to Senator McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee's crusade against supposed communist sympathizers.  Despite the obvious political criticisms contained within the play, most critics felt that "The Crucible" was "a self-contained play about a terrible period in American history."

What is most significant is that humanity – like the Professor – become aware that the terrible period in American history is far from over. The “rough beast its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.” Yeats knew. Einstein knew there was something worse to come but did not “want to imagine it.” Marilyn also knew but chose to remain positive and hopeful. Joseph McCarthy might have been the beast or the anti-beast and, either way, could have cared less about the future. Joe DiMaggio knew but just wanted to play baseball and try to please Marilyn. The enduring and rich question raised by Mr. Johnson’s play is, “Do we know, care to know, and do we have a plan to avoid another terrible period in our collective history driven by the fractured fractals of fame.

This is the UK theatre company Defibrillator’s first US production and one hopes not the last. See “Insignificance” as soon as possible. It has a short run that ends on Sunday March 20 and each performance is limited to a maximum of 40-50 patrons. Do not miss out on this rare opportunity to see important theatre performed in the most intimate of spaces where “actors and audiences alike breathe the same oxygen.”


“Insignificance” is presented by Defibrillator. The cast includes Max Baker, Anthony Comis, Susannah Hoffman, and Michael Pemberton. Amy Cook is the Production Designer. Production photos by Jenny Anderson.

For more information about “Insignificance” including performance schedule at Langham Place in New York city and how to purchase tickets, please visit Running time is estimated at 1 hour 50 minutes with a 20-minute interval. There is a bar looking down on 5th Avenue where drinks will be available during the interval.