Saturday, August 18, 2012

Chain Reaction: Destroying Worlds and Building Bridges

When I explained to friends, family, and the guy at the gas station that I was going to the New York International Fringe Festival to see a comedy about the creation of the atom bomb, the most common response was, “oh, that seems real funny.” And it’s true—Jonathan Alexandratos’s historical satire doesn’t tackle a subject that, shall we say, immediately brings to mind madcap hilarity. But that very description of Chain Reaction, through slamming together in your head the contradistinct concepts of humor and weapons of mass destruction, already begins to do the work of the text. Chain Reaction is a play that takes warring concepts—creation and destruction, collaboration and rivalry, connection and alienation, history and fiction—and not so much obliterates the distinctions between them, but rather exposes the abiding links that were there all along.

The action of the play follows the major figures of the Manhattan Project—J. Robert Oppenheimer (Paul Corning Jr.), General Leslie Groves (Dustye Winniford), Edward Teller (Jim Nugent), Niels Bohr (Michael Selkirk), and his son Aage (Gary G. Howell)—beginning with the bomb’s construction in the 1940s and following as they cope with the, ahem, fallout both geopolitical and personal that resulted from their overwhelming scientific and military success. The lives of these men are persistently and drastically influenced by a pair of Agents (Gregory Kostal and Mary Catherine Wilson) whose deadpan embodiment of government bureaucracy are scene-stealingly funny. All the characters both are and aren’t uncomplicated stand-ins for their historical counterparts, and both are and aren’t caricatures of the social and political transformations that were shaping the world during and after World War II. That is, the writing is deeply respectful of and interested in how these men were shaped by and are understood through their monumental place in history, but it is even more concerned with how their humanity is reflected through and refracted by the bomb.

Oppenheimer’s conflict over the implications of his research is played out through the fits and starts of his extramarital affair with the play’s only major female character, Jean Tatlock (Sandy Oppedisano). His reluctance to open himself to her, to match physical intimacy with emotional vulnerability, results in a scene of destruction that pales in scale to Hiroshima, but is still devastating in its staging. Oppenheimer’s jaunty humor and wry confidence is never completely bridged by Tatlock’s increasingly desperate attempts to access not just his body, but also his increasing ambivalence concerning his work.

Niels Bohr, who fled Denmark hours before the Nazi invasion, is another catalyst for exploring interpersonal instability in the play. Edward Teller’s one-sided rivalry with the Nobel laureate is a potent reminder of how human pettiness can reverberate historically, with Teller’s jealousy prompting not only a cleverly staged volatile squabble during the mimed construction of the bomb itself, but also the late scene of Oppenheimer’s HUAC-esque interrogation as the action of the play moves into the 1960s.

The most moving pairing, though, is the play’s treatment of the delicate rapprochement between Niels and his son Aage. The dialogue between the two concisely and resonantly recalls a history of paternal absence and frustrated filial worship. As the two tentatively learn to speak to each other, work together, and express real affection and respect for one another, the audience is reminded that destruction cannot exist without creation. That even as these men were destroying worlds, they were also creating a space for a brave new one. This thematic impulse is powerfully realized through the directorial choice of foregrounding the breaking down and building up of each scene’s set from the same handful of simple objects, and through General Groves’s delight at returning to his pre-war career—building bridges.

Chain Reaction experiments with the traditional boundaries of a history play resulting in a structure that productively mirrors the instability and surprise of scientific experimentation. The characters are funnier and the interactions more stylized than they most likely were in “real life,” but that choice in no way detracts from the truth of the narrative. I am usually skeptical of deconstructive impulses in treatments of history, especially concerning an event as traumatic as the dropping of the A-bomb, because I fear that fictionalizing the past runs the risk of diminishing the real suffering of thousands of human bodies. I was thrilled for that skepticism to be utterly dismantled by this play. Chain Reaction insists upon confronting the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki through a compelling closing scene that both acknowledges and refutes any impulse from the audience to disassociate themselves from the reality of these men and this act because it’s “just a play.” Additionally, and even more remarkably, Alexandratos’s script does what all successful and compassionate historical accounts should do—remind us that we are all terrifying and beautifully and irrevocably accountable to each other. As Bohr notes, “experiments never fail . . . they just teach us unexpected things.” Chain Reaction succeeds by and through offering such surprising and unanticipated insights.

Chain Reaction is currently playing at the Kraine Theatre at 85 East 4th Street through Sunday, August 26th. Grab a drink upstairs at the KGB Bar after.

Full disclosure: I have a personal relationship with the playwright of Chain Reaction.

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