Review: “Relativity” at Penguin Rep Theatre

John P. McCarthy

  • Associate New York Theatre Critic

Mark St. Germain has turned writing plays about historical figures into a cottage industry. And “Relativity,” which opened last Sunday at Rockland County’s Penguin Rep Theatre, can now be added to a list of titles that includes “Freud’s Last Session,” “Camping with Henry and Tom,” and “Becoming Dr. Ruth.”

Whether sexologist Ruth Westheimer belongs in the company of Sigmund Freud, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and “Relativity’s” Albert Einstein is debatable. Nevertheless, St. Germain’s commitment to dramatizing the lives of luminaries meshes with Penguin Rep’s pedagogical mission. And so, with Artistic Director Joe Brancato at the controls, the Rockland County troupe launches its 41st season with another vibrant piece that entertains and stimulates the gray matter.

While I’ll readily admit I’m no Einstein, it occurs to me that “Relativity” can be read as the rejection of a false dichotomy according to which the aims of leading a morally good life and achieving great things are either mutually exclusive or inextricably linked. Reckoning with discrepancies between private behavior and public image is front-and-center nowadays; and yet the idea of separating or compartmentalizing the two spheres is a fairly recent development.

In past eras, people were much more likely to assume that private virtue and public accomplishment went hand-in-hand—you couldn’t have one without the other. Now it seems as though we’ve gone to the other extreme and cynically assume that all great public figures have a dark, sinister side—as if their success must be the result of some Faustian bargain. Like any artist worth his salt, St. Germain wants to explode this binary way of thinking and the false conclusions it produces; his task as a dramatist is to explore the conflict that arises in the gray area between two poles without necessarily offering any definitive answers.  

 From left to right: Celeste Ciulla (Margaret Harding), Robert Zukerman (Albert Einstein) Photo credit: Chris Yacopino

From left to right: Celeste Ciulla (Margaret Harding), Robert Zukerman (Albert Einstein)
Photo credit: Chris Yacopino

The pertinent skeleton in Einstein’s closet—the potential stain on his reputation—stems from the fact that in 1902 he and his first wife Mileva had a daughter, Lieserl, whose existence they never publicly acknowledged. The mystery surrounding this biographical tidbit prompted St. Germain to devise a scenario that takes place in December of 1949. Having wrangled an interview with Einstein (Robert Zukerman) in the study of his Princeton, New Jersey home, a persistent reporter Margaret Harding (Celeste Ciulla) grills the elderly physicist about his past and, in particular, the fate of Lieserl. Melodrama, interspersed with often-eloquent descriptions of the weighty issues involved, ensues.

All would be for naught without a worthy Einstein, and Zukerman does a masterful job of bringing the character to life, taking full advantage of the script, director Brancato’s knack for breezy staging, and myriad devices plucked from his own bag of acting tricks. Sporting a thick (and consistent) accent, a rather tame silver mane and moustache, this Einstein is a complicated figure. On the one hand, he’s a smooth operator who’s able to charm and disarm with a joke or a smile, amenable to playing the role of impish sage that people expect. On the other, he displays a radical, almost ruthless devotion to the pursuit of scientific knowledge that entails a willingness to spurn convention and follow wherever it leads. Although both personas are genuine, the most moving moment in the play comes near the end when Einstein drops all his masks and wordlessly lets the emotion and stress of his encounter with Margaret wash over him.

Given whom she turns out to be, Margaret is inclined to view him as a “heartless monster” (his term) rather than as a normally flawed human being with an abnormally powerful intellect. She lashes out, “You poison lives of everyone around you!” While hardly a dispassionate assessment, the Einstein depicted certainly has a misanthropic streak and the ease with which he’s able to lie is disconcerting. He tries to “rid himself of the personal” in order to devote more time and energy to his work. This partly explains his willingness to play the huggable genius, the cantankerous, eccentric codger: the sooner he gives people what they want, the sooner they’ll stop bothering him and leave him to his work.

And even when it’s clear he’s driven less by ego than by a clear-sighted, logical analysis of things as they truly are—above all, he’s a pragmatist who believes in the utility of science when it comes to explaining the universe—there’s a chilling, Nietzchean quality to his outlook and to his defense of his past actions. When it comes down to it, he thinks there are special individuals who contribute more to the betterment of mankind than others; and, crucially, they are justified in behaving selfishly in order to fulfill their promise.

Understandably, this argument doesn’t hold much water with Margaret, who is consumed with righteous anger. Yet it’s a drawback of “Relativity” that she isn’t very likeable or doesn’t trigger more sympathy. This is a function of how the character is written (one-dimensionally) as well as Celeste Ciulla’s constricted performance. Ciulla is convincing as a rootless, Mittel-European woman of the period—arguably too much so, since her awkward vocal inflections and physical unease accurately reflect Margaret’s situation but keep the audience at a distance.

Allowing Margaret to be eclipsed and her feelings displaced can be interpreted as tacit confirmation of the “Great Man” theory of history and the notion that certain individuals naturally attract more light, and therefore receive more attention and latitude. Or maybe St. Germain thinks Margaret will win the audience over simply because of her plight and the fact that she serves as a kind of surrogate for present-day attitudes toward the play’s themes. She doesn’t appear inclined to kowtow to authority or to those whom society esteems and celebrates. In any case, the intriguing third character in “Relativity” has the potential to redress the imbalance between the two primary roles, which is why it’s too bad the part of Miss Dukas, Einstein’s fiercely protective housekeeper and secretary, isn’t bigger (especially because she’s portrayed by the talented Susan Pellegrino).

Ultimately, Margaret isn’t a formidable enough interlocutor. She confronts Einstein about a painful episode from his past but doesn’t have the detachment to rebut the explanation he gives for his past decisions. Therefore he ends up debating himself in a sense; and he issues a series of pronouncements or epigrams, Einstein’s actual quotes, that may be apt but don’t allow for meaningful dialogue and don’t propel the narrative. Margaret voices her hurt and outrage, along with some anachronistic (or at least very modern-sounding) opinions, but lands few rhetorical punches. Einstein takes the floor and never yields it, so there’s not the scintillating exchange of ideas, the crackling back-and-forth, the verbal sparring that could potentially change the minds of people onstage or in the audience. Moreover, the dramatic action isn’t substantial enough; the premise, which telegraphs the main twist, practically exhausts the story. And so, despite an engrossing theme, a sterling lead performance, and a more than serviceable production (William Neal’s music has a nice celestial ring), “Relativity” is a conundrum—too heavy and too glib at the same time. 

We’re left to conclude that the amoral or even immoral genius—whether an artist, scientist or politician—is as much of a straw man as the genius who is deemed beyond moral reproach by virtue of his or her achievements. That’s not to suggest we ought to ignore transgressions or suspend moral judgment. Nor does it mean playwrights should never attempt to weigh in on history or historical figures from their own vantage point, through their own prism (as if that were possible).  No. Unless the goal is to affirm what we already know and believe, the key is to present ideas and arguments in the best aesthetic form, in the most viable artistic structure or vehicle one can imagine and build. It’s good to know Mark St. Germain is probably hard at work doing just that.

“Relativity” runs at Penguin Rep Theatre, Stony Point, NY through June 10, 2018