When Swiss author Friedrich Dürrenmatt wrote The Physicists in 1962, many Americans thought nuclear holocaust was just down the street, if not around a corner or two. Humanity, Dürrenmatt responded in his play, can't be trusted with the means to its own destruction, however nobly conceived those means may be. Innocence, he feared, would tread the only available path as mankind girded itself for a final impalement.
Fortunately, Fred had a madcap sense of humor about it all. In The Physicists, he doesn't quite follow through on his warnings, but his language is gruff and quirky and ridiculous in its appeal. The UCSD Department of Theatre and Dance apparently agrees, because it's staging the piece with those values in mind—meanwhile, director Lori Petermann and her techies simply haven't missed a single trick, mounting as absolutely seamless a piece of physical storycraft as you'll find. UCSD has a great college-level production here, colored by a vitality and spontaneity that only university theater can provide.
The scientists take their cues from Dürrenmatt's taste for the absurd—they've had themselves committed to a sanatorium rather than put their knowledge at risk in public. One, Ernst Ernesti (Walter Belenky), has the white coats believing he's Albert Einstein; another, Herbert Beutler (Evan Powell), feigns Sir Isaac Newton. The central character, Johann Wilhelm Möbius (Larry Herron), takes his directives from the Bible's King Solomon. He doesn't think man is ready for the particle theory he's discovered—what he doesn't know is that his cellmates are actually intelligentsia, there to get at his discovery.
Meanwhile, sanatorium founder Mathilda von Zahnd (Amalia Fite) shows her colors as the only true nuthatch in the bunch. She's on to the men—and suddenly, they face more behind bars than they bargained for.
“Any ass,” one says, “can make a bulb light up or an atomic bomb explode”—the point being that the men themselves are of no critical importance to human survival. Dürrenmatt's right about that, and he makes it a tenet of his play. The problem is that he doesn't follow up terribly convincingly, focusing on the potential fate of the inmates rather than the world they seek to protect.
Get past that, and you'll be looking at some of the most wonderfully effective staging I've seen in some time. Watch how Steve C. Kemp's scene design frames the ironical, stylized speech and murky intentions amid its dingy yellow walls and almost lounge-like accouterments. Emily de Angelis' costumes defer to her instincts as surely as they do the characters, and Hong Sooyeon's lights envelop the stage with a quiet shrug, the ideal complement to Toby Algya's austere sound.
All good absurdist theater begins and ends with the technical effort involved (which is why I'm making such a fuss about it here)—the more outlandish the play, the more urgent the creative requirement behind each component.
That's the great thing about this show. Petermann and her crews have harnessed that urgency into a whole as each element feeds at once off itself and each other. The Physicists is truly the sum of its parts, and in a learning environment like this, that is one extraordinary achievement. This review is based on the matinée production of Feb. 9. The Physicists runs through Feb. 16 at La Jolla Playhouse's Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive in La Jolla. $10-$15. 858-534-4754 or www.theatre.ucsd.edu.