New York City Theater
Acorn Theatre, Manhattan
It is no surprise that “Einstein’s Gift” received top recognition in Canada, and will undoubtedly be similarly received here in the States. This powerful play by Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen has just opened off-Broadway in a flawlessly-staged production by the Epic Theatre Center.
The play poses more than one moral dilemma for a human being living in our existential world. And certainly moral dilemmas for Jews, for scientists, for geniuses. What are the rules, if there are rules, for the research scientist? Should a man make moral compromises to achieve an ultimate good? Is war ever justified? Can a Jew deny his roots, reinvent himself, become a new persona? Such are the questions posed in this deeply-challenging drama, which wrenches the hearts of its characters (and the audience as well). Thiessen never provides answers, leaving those knotty problems in the laps of the audiences.
The play, historically-based, deals with Albert Einstein and another lesser-known scientist, one Fritz Haber. Both were German Jews who were ultimately forced to flee the country. Haber was a driven, ambitious, brilliant chemist, who believed that research must have practical application for the good of mankind. Einstein, on the other hand, pursued pure research. Moreover, while Einstein was ever the pacifist, Huber could justify war in the name of patriotism. (Of course the irony was that the pacifist, the believer in pure research, was the scientist whose discoveries led to the atom bomb.) To watch each man’s evolution against the backdrop of world history, and each man’s effect upon the other, is totally absorbing.
But do not think “Einstein’s Gift” is merely an intellectual exercise. Thiessen develops his characters so beautifully that one is caught up in the story and its people. And this particular production, in the capable hands of the Epic Theatre Center, is equal to the challenge. Director Ron Russell stages the piece imaginatively but with a sure hand, as it moves back and forth in time from 1905 to 1945. And John McDermott’s unusual set design is clearly in sync with Russell’s vision.
Not that “Einstein’s Gift” is perfect. It is slow getting off the ground, the second act needs pruning, and the finale certainly cashes in on sentimentality.
Nevertheless, this is an absorbing piece. And most of all, Russell is blessed with a gifted cast. Shawn Elliott (Einstein), Aasif Mandvi (Haber) and Melissa Friedman (Haber’s wife) give the kind of performances that remind us why we critics go to theater again and again (what we’re always hoping to find) and why theater survives through the centuries. Granted that “Einstein’s Gift” is heavy-going, as one relives agonizing moments of the past century—with its wars, dictatorships and nuclear bombs. Nevertheless, this history lesson has been transmuted into pure gold. “Einstein’s Gift” is a theatrical experience not to be missed.
-- Irene Backalenick
October 6, 2005