Jason is a producer, manager, and designer with 17 years of experience in Chicago, New York, and in the touring market. In 2015, he founded Lotus Theatricals - the publisher of Performink, and an independent commercial producing company - with Abigail Trabue.
Mike Nussbaum as Einstein. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
By Jason Epperson
The measurement of motion depends on the relative velocity and position of the observer. Mark St. Germain’s RELATIVITY, which opened Friday night at Northlight, thrusts Albert Einstien into an interrogation via a tenacious journalist into his failings as a father. The Theory of Relativity here is used as a metaphor, exploring the ideas of greatness, contribution, family, God, and genius.
Let’s get the most important bit out of the way first. If you are going to this play, your intent is to see Mike Nussbaum as Albert Einstein, and he delivers in spades. His performance is no impression, but an embodiment, thoroughly thoughtful, humorous, heartbreaking, and witty. He is stellar here. An absolutely brilliant actor. His performance is impressive because it is impressive. Not because we’re watching America’s oldest working stage actor, but because at age 94, he is at the top of his game. Nussbaum brings every bit of his wealth of experience to this role, and it’s an utter joy to watch.
Mark St. Germain is the kind of playwright that employs ideas that sound incredibly amateurish (what if Sigmond Freud and C.S. Lewis had a “session?”), yet he takes them desperately seriously and crafts them to impeccable standards. His dialog is sharp, his humor biting, and he asks hard questions, exploring the depths of what it means to be a real person through caricatures of history’s minds.
The whole thing — as most St. Germain plays are — is highly contrived. Your bullshit meter will go off several times during RELATIVITY’s 70 minutes, but the playwright doesn’t care. He’s not oblivious to it. It just doesn’t matter to him. In this case, he uses Einsteinisms to explore the maximum capacity of all humans. If you are a great genius, do you have to sacrifice some of humanity’s ideals to use your gifts for the greater good? Does an incredibly good person fail to contribute their full potential to society due to their humility? Conceivably, the relative position of the people who observe us is inextricable from our actions.
It’s a fascinating study that perhaps leaves you disappointed there isn’t a bit more. I wanted the play to dive just a bit further, to turn about the metaphor just a bit longer. But that’s a much preferable position to boredom or stagnation. It’s a conversation play that provides nothing of the sort.
B.J. Jones’ production perhaps tries a bit too hard. The use of projections fails to add anything to the piece and requires large white ribbon-like surfaces that detract from Jack Magaw’s otherwise serviceable set. There’s a feeling here that, because our subject is a physicist, there is a need to create sciencey-looking etherial bookends with lighting, sound, and video, and it’s just incongruent with the mechanics and theme of the play. Katherine Keberlein as the reporter-with-a-secret and Ann Whitney as the housekeeper do solid work as insightful foils to Einstein’s genius.
If you’re the type of person that would be interested in a historical fiction play like this in the first place, you will be more than satisfied and somewhat surprised at its depth. RELATIVITY is at its best when it gets out of Nussbaum’s way and lets him do his thing.
RELATIVITY runs through June 18th. More information at northlight.org.