On Sundays Gothamist runs opinion pieces relevant to life in New York and reviews of recent books and performances. The judgments expressed below are entirely those of the author.
It’s hard to imagine the Iranian leadership, or many non-exile Iranians, being riveted by or even comprehending of pretty much any show on or off-Broadway, as a general rule. Egads, the sexy dancing in The Pajama Game, the AIDS in Rent, the audience’s unabashed collective fun in Spamalot! But watching the Keen Company’s powerful production of Heinar Kipphardt’s In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, I could imagine sitting by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Ayatollah Khameini and hearing them murmur in understanding at the dynamic onstage. Kipphardt’s 1966 play, which is essentially a reenactment of a trial held in 1954 for the titular “father” of the atomic bomb about whether his security clearance should be reinstated, brings up issues of nationalism and loyalty that can’t fail to call to mind Iran’s current race to become a nuclear power, and makes one muse that Americans once understood the importance of that power in pretty much the same way that Iranians do these days. The actors do a crackling job in getting this to work, and if the audience can’t help but be a little incredulous at the views their characters espouse, it’s just reflective of the inability Americans are now having at understanding Iran’s motives. Maybe by contemplating the reenacted events at least a few will be induced to think a little more flexibly about the current situation; at the very least, they will be forced, à la Good Night, and Good Luck. to reconsider a dicey, too quickly buried part of this country’s past, and that is always a good thing.
Quick synopsis/history lesson: Oppenheimer’s security clearance was taken away for a third time because he was suspected of Communist leanings and protecting dangerous Communist friends. A “Personnel Security Board” of three (including a chemistry professor whose goofy naiveté is captured perfectly by Dan Daily) held hearings in which the Atomic Energy Commission’s counsel (led by Roger Robb, played in splendidly sinister, intense fashion by Rocco Sisto) dukes out the ideology with witnesses and Oppenheimer and his counsel – and that’s it, no more and no less. The topics at hand – whether personal allegiances and patriotic commitments that seem contradictory can hold up side by side, whether dissent is disloyal or true loyalty, and more than anything the role of scientific advancement: whether it should be used to enhance national stature, who should direct its use, how it can be controlled – are batted back and forth to create a charged atmosphere of mistrust and frustration.
The hearings went on for almost a month in ’54; this play is close to three hours long, but that’s only time enough for four of the most prominent witnesses to take the off-off-Broadway stage as convincingly as they do: Col. Boris Pash, John Lansdale, Edward Teller, and Hans Bethe. Two for Oppenheimer, and two against: even if your prejudices are with one side, the actors all make persuasive cases. It certainly helps that they seem like they just stepped out of that very courtroom in the fifties: D. J. Mendel gives the polished Pash a creepy earnestness, Jonathan Hogan makes John Lansdale warm the heart with his intelligent sincerity, and Keith Reddin and Matt Fischer’s matching thick German accents as Teller and Bethe underscore their fierce, heartfelt performances. Then, of course, there’s Thomas Jay Ryan’s forceful turn as Oppenheimer himself; from the mannerisms and brief motions he displays as testimony proceeds, to Oppenheimer’s eloquent response to the counsels’ and board’s questions, to his stirring final speech, Ryan makes the man both instantly sympathetic and quietly demanding of our respect.
But what allows these performances to shine is Carl Forsman’s ingenious minimalist staging. Such trials are by their nature dramatic, but capturing that drama onstage isn’t necessarily easy. Rather than having the actors actually face to face, the show has a multilevel set in which the actors’ subtle shifts of position and gaze make them seem to be addressing each other, with perhaps even more gripping results than if they really were making eye contact. It’s astounding how well they do this, and it makes you feel as though you’re right there. Portions of the play do drag a bit, as is only natural with something based on court proceedings (even those as heated as these), and Kipphardt’s way of giving backstory – having members of the board ask stupid questions – becomes slightly tiresome. But the play is overall deeply intellectually provocative, engaging us in a lively discussion of the clashes at the intersection of science and national security, patriotism and personal ethics – precisely the vital questions we should be confronting (and dealing with, rather than leaving them on professional political discussion's road to nowhere) as the situation with Iran escalates. No American leaders are likely to see the play, much less Ahmedinejad and Khamenei (maybe if they all did it would break the ice for talks!) but at least regular New Yorkers can go to remind ourselves of the mindset we’re up against and to see how our own nation’s has and hasn’t morphed since the days of the hearings.
Connelly Theater // 220 E. 4th St. // Through June 27, Tues.-Sat. 8pm, Sun. 7pm // Tickets via Smarttix // Photos by Theresa Squires