Alan Alda plays a genius facing mortality

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Nov. 30, 2001 at 11:31 AM
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NEW YORK, Calif., Nov. 30 (UPI) -- Alan Alda is creating a complete portrait of screwball genius facing mortality in an absorbing new Peter Parnell play titled "QED" at Lincoln Center.

Unfortunately for Alda fans and lovers of serious theater, "QED" is only being performed on Sunday and Monday nights through Dec. 17. But it's too good not to have an after-life, perhaps at some other venue than the Lincoln Center's Beaumont Theater.

The biographical show's title refers to the quantum electrodynamics theory for which physicist Richard Feynman won the Nobel Prize in 1965. Alda originated the role of Feynman at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles earlier this year, and the play has come to New York under the direction of Gordon Davidson, the Taper's artistic director.

This is virtually a one-man show with Feynman thinking out loud, interrupted briefly by one of his students, Miriam Field, played flirtatiously by Kelley Overbey.

Alda got the idea for it when he read a book about Feynman, who died of cancer in 1988. He went to Davidson about a possible dramatization, and Davidson turned the project over to Parnell, who had adapted John Irving's novel, "The Cider House Rules," for a Taper production.

Parnell wrote four versions of the play over a period of years before he created the necessary dramatic tensions relieved by a late night visit from Miriam to Feynman's Caltech office in 1986 when the physicist was 68. The physicist has just gotten word from his doctor that he must decide on whether to undergo risky surgery for cancer or die within months.

"In my play, I have actually tried in some sense to actually track the way a scientist thinks," Parnell said in an interview. "What he's grappling with seems to involved how to look clearly at something without illusions. That's what Feynman loved to do -- solve problems. It's his own body, his own mortality -- so be it."

Feynman remembers how the wobble of a plate he saw thrown in a cafeteria got him back into life in 1946 after a bout with deep depression over the deaths of his wife and father and regrets about the destructive power of the atom bomb, which he had helped develop. That irresistible wobble had led him to the theory than won a Nobel.

This memory and a spirited but innocent dance with Miriam is enough to make Feynman decide that life must go on and to risk the operation, which means facing death one way or another. To watch him work through this human problem is emotionally moving but it is also a delight, thanks to Feynman's famous kooky humor and zany antics. Only Alda, who has specialized in playing mavericks and eccentrics, could carry it off.

We see Feynman, who loved amateur theatricals, preparing to play the Bali Ha'i chieftain in a campus production of "South Pacific" in full-feathered regalia, beating on a bongo drum and singing "There Is Nothing Like a Dame" as though he means it. After all, he is a self-confessed lady's man.

We watch him as he jestingly prepares a lecture at a meeting of non-physicists on the subject of "What We Know." We hear him arguing exasperatedly on the phone with a fellow-member of the commission that investigated the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger and banteringly discussing the progress of his cancer with his oncologist and surgeon.

Feynman never sits still and bounces from one end of his office to another and from one idea to another, speaking disjointedly in this native Brooklyn accent. He discusses at length his determination to visit Tannu Tuva, a remote province of the Soviet Union he has discovered in a geography book, because he found it "interesting" that its capital, Kyzyl, is spelled without vowels. Interesting was the key word in Feynman's pursuit of knowledge, no matter how trivial.

Parnell has Feynman put this in the form of a dictum for Miriam. "Remember," he tells her, "everything is interesting if you look deeply enough."

This may not be the deepest play on the New York theatrical scene, but it is an intellectual exercise in its mildest, most entertaining form and an affectionate tribute to a complex man of charismatic charm.

Add it to the list of recent popular plays that are rooted in physics and mathematics that include David Auburn's current hit, "Proof," and Michael Frayn's "Copenhagen," and you may sense a trend. "Star Messengers," a musical about astronomers Galileo and Johann Kepler, opens next week Off-Broadway.

Ralph Funicello's detailed set, lit by D. Martyn Bookwalter, functions well, and Marianna Elliott's costumes evoke the obligatory campus casual except for the fancifully colorful Bali Ha'i costume. Davidson's direction is a welcome deviation from the usual one-man show acted from behind a lectern.

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