At the Northlight Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Skokie –“Relativity,” receiving its world premiere at the Northlight Theatre, is one of a sub genre of modern plays that are based on the personalities of famous people. The central figures could be actual political figures or scientists. Typically, two of them meet and talk in an intimate setting on weighty matters. That talk could be based on real life meetings or just speculation by the playwright. The play typically offers little action or narrative, but the talk at its best is stimulating and often humorous.
Playwright Mark St. Germain has built “Relativity” around the famous mathematician Albert Einstein. We meet Einstein late in life at Princeton University, where he teaches and theorizes and has become an international icon of the scientific world. The play opens with the appearance of a young woman who claims to be a journalist who wants to interview the great man. No spoiler alert is required. We learn early in the show that the woman is actually his long lost daughter who uses the journalist ruse to gain access to her father with a very personal agenda. The play then settles into an emotional debate between the two characters.
The one-act play runs barely 70 minutes. Other than Einstein and his daughter, the only other character is a gruff old servant woman who has assumed the role of the man’s protector against the invasion of people just like the alleged journalist. The elderly woman basically provides comic relief in her few appearances. For most of its performing time “Relativity” is a two hander between Einstein and the daughter.
PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Brosilow
The daughter is in an accusatory mode, charging Einstein with being a bad father. The daughter has a son who apparently is as precocious in science as his famous grandfather. There are also exchanges about the nature and value of science, the most stimulating part of St. Germain’s script. The daughter is on the side of personal responsibility and family feeling. What good are Einstein’s abstract theories if they don’t improve the quality of life? Einstein fiercely claims that his goal rightfully is the single-minded pursuit of knowledge. The viewer is invited to choose sides between what is the more valuable, Einstein’s revolutionary theory of relativity that seems to touch no individual, or a humanitarian cause like seeking a cure for cancer? It’s a battle between the daughter’s cry for human feeling and responsibility and Einstein’s insistence that pure knowledge must take precedence.
What gives “Relativity” its audience appeal is the personality of Einstein. To the world, Einstein was a lovable and droll old codger who just happened to possess one of the great minds in human history. Einstein nurtured his folksy image but he had a steely personality and a sharp temper. He was a complex man who knew how to play the celebrity game to his own advantage. No other scientist of our time seems so human and accessible to the public.
And that brings us, finally, to Mike Nussbaum, now 93 and the patriarch of Chicagoland theater, and his rendering of the scientist. Nussbaum looks strikingly like Einstein with his wild mane of white hair. Initially, the viewer admires Nussbaum’s spot-on credibility as Einstein but as the play progresses we became totally absorbed in the scientist come to life. Nussbaum doesn’t impersonate Einstein, he inhabits him. Thanks to Nussbaum, “Relativity” is saved from being just a resourceful performance by a hugely admired local actor and becomes an authentic recreation of a fascinating genius. Only after we leave the theater can we perhaps marvel how a man of Nussbaum’s age can perform so well and so consistently, and for eight shows a week (How tired the actor must be of reviewer references to his age!).
Katherine Keberlein is very good as the daughter, fearlessly walking into the lion’s den of Einstein’s private space to attack him as a thoughtless and selfish father. Ann Whitney gets some laughs as the super protective housekeeper.
PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Brosilow
B. J. Jones does a fine job of sustaining interest and even excitement in a play that relies almost totally on language. Jack Magaw’s detailed set credibly evokes Einstein’s study. Stephen Mazurek’s created the atmospheric projections flashed against the rear stage. JR Lederle designed the lighting, Rachel Leritz the costumes, and Andrew Hansen the sound plan.
The title of “Relativity” presumably refers to both the theory of relativity Einstein gave the world and the relationship as relatives that both bind and divide Einstein and his daughter in the play. By the end of the evening not much has been resolved in terms of either the domestic or intellectual conflicts the script explores, but there is plenty of absorbing dialogue and it’s an honor to watch Mike Nussbaum add another jewel to his acting crown.
The show gets a rating of 3½ stars.
“Relativity” runs through June 18 at the Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Boulevard. Most performances are Wednesday at 1 and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 8u p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 and 7 p.m. Tickets are $30 to $81. Call 847 673 6300 or visit www.northlight.org.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. May 21, 2017
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