2005_10_arts_einstein.JPG Gothamist was passing through the physics section in a bookstore recently and couldn’t help but be a bit startled by the number of titles to do with Einstein. We probably shouldn’t have been surprised, since the view of science as driven by the efforts of great men is a time-honored one, and Einstein has to be the most widely popular scientist ever, but still. Einstein and religion, Einstein and the arts, Einstein and politics…seems like every imaginable facet of the man has been examined. In Einstein’s Gift, Vern Thiessen’s thoughtful but somewhat frustrating new play, we get a look at a relatively less famous piece of Einsteiniana: his encounters with the German chemist Fritz Haber, who gained notoriety for pushing the use of chlorine gas in WWI and later developing a pesticide, Zyklon B, that ended up as a key agent of Hitler’s Final Solution. Haber’s actions are really the focus of the play; he and Einstein didn’t meet that frequently, so Einstein’s Gift is more about Haber’s gift for living solely by his belief that science should be put to practical use, and his baffling, unshakeable devotion to Germany, rather than about Einstein -- not a bad thing, in our opinion. Thiessen has taken quite a few liberties in recreating Haber’s life and his meetings with Einstein, and while this certainly makes for a richer story and is to be expected to some degree, the production suffers at times for being too obviously a 21st century playwright speaking through characters rooted in the early 20th century.

Although Einstein is only directly involved in a few scenes, some longer than others, he is on stage for essentially the entire show, hovering in the background like the conscience that Haber often seems not to have. Shawn Elliot as Einstein nicely captures the scientist’s famous appearance of absentmindedness and his well-known gentle, mellow character. One of the show’s greatest strengths is the contrast, both physical and as far as self-presentation, between Elliot and Aasif Mandvi, who plays Haber. Where Elliot seems somehow fragile and almost lost at times, Mandvi is swarthy and swaggering, and never betrays the least bit of hesitation about what he’s doing until the very end. This is clear from the very start, when we see Haber go to a church to convert from Judaism to Christianity, and he towers imposingly over the priest while Einstein stands off to the side, wincing. Haber then swashbuckles his way into a marriage with a fellow chemist, Clara Immerwahr (Melissa Friedman, in an excellent performance), who shares his passion for practical science but not his lack of principle, with predictably tragic results. The play speeds through the years chronologically, with some important moments paused upon but many milestones treated literally like a textbook timeline, with characters announcing directly to the audience something that happened in a given year, a tactic that, rather than allowing the play to gain momentum, makes it more dry and distant, making Gothamist feel too frequently like we were watching a didactic documentary rather than a creative portrait, even though it is that as well.

Of course, the line between a creative yet faithful look at a historical figure, and a creative but slightly unbelievable one, is easily crossed, and Thiessen often seems to be stretching things to make events say what he wants them to say. As a result, though the actors are plainly talented, in many cases the dialogue that’s coming out of their mouths, and the way they’re made to interact, just doesn’t seem right, so they appear unnatural in turn. In the program notes, Thiessen writes that he doesn’t “care much about breaking the sacred seal of historical fact,” probably anticipating objections like this, but Gothamist’s complaint is not so much about things that may or may not have occurred as the way what goes on is portrayed and how it fails to invoke the atmosphere from the era in question. Thiessen and others might respond that the intent was to consider the tangled net of moral issues that Haber was caught in, seemingly without knowing or caring, but if that's so, then it must be said that the hard questions are too often skirted or treated only briefly. To be sure, the final scene, which gives the play its title, is an emotionally forceful climax, and there are other flashes of the characters being confronted head-on with the demons of their times and lives, but they are too compressed and surrounded with other matters. By the end we kind of wished that Thiessen had been even less scrupulous about presenting all of the history, and just gotten us to that end with some slower scenes that really examined and interrogated the characters’ behavior, rather than starting to do so and then rushing on. When Einstein’s Gift does come together to make Haber’s complicated life illustrate some tough questions, it is disturbing and provocative in a good way, but at too many other points it bogs down in episodes that seem so much less important, so that even after that last scene, playgoers are liable to walk away frustrated that those questions didn’t get quite all the attention they should have.

Details: Einstein's Gift, presented by the Epic Theatre Center, is at the Acorn Theater, 410 W. 42nd St., through Nov. 6. Shows are Tues.-Sat. 8pm, Sat. 2pm, Sun. 3pm. Tickets are at Ticket Central.

Photo by Dixie Sheridan.