By Myra Chanin
As you may have noticed, I dote on Off-and-Off-Off-Broadway productions because that’s where I find the magic is found. It’s easy enough to dazzle a big-ticket audience with an exorbitantly costly replica of Chicago’s 1929 Union Station. They’ve paid enough to see it so they better love it. But when your stage is set with only a seedy desk, a chair, a chalkboard, a bureau and a couch, it had better be peopled with characters of irreversible fascination played by first-rate actors, which is exactly what playwright Jack Karp and director Melanie Moyer Williams have accomplished in the Red Fern Theater Company production of Irreversible.
Talk about bold and brave, Karp and Williams have had the courage to present the play about the creation of the atomic bomb in a two-act form instead of in a cowardly non-stop make-‘em-too-embarrassed-to-walk-out-in-the-middle 90-ish minute long one-actor, thus risking mass audience evacuation during the intermission. Not to worry. The fraternal relationship cum sibling rivalry between physicists J. Robert and Frank Oppenheimer surrounding the creation of the atomic bomb is so fascinating and the information so well researched, written and performed, that every ass sat on the edge of its seat until the final blackout – despite the fact that everyone knew pretty much how the play would end, not with a whimper but with the first of several gigantic bangs.
Irreversible takes place in 1944 at Los Alamos where Robert Oppenheimer and his younger brother Frank, both theoretical physicists, are frantically working – along with a select group of top scientists — to beat the Nazis to the creation of a nuclear bomb. Afraid Germany has a two-year head start, Robert and his boss, General Groves, push their scientists to avoid “waking up to a mushroom cloud over New York.” With technical difficulties and growing concern over his Communist associations mounting, Robert has no time to think about the consequences of his “gadget.” After the brothers finally see the weapon’s actual devastation, Frank has doubts about its use. General Groves, however, is determined to go forward and convinces Robert that opposing the use of the weapon will ruin both his and his brother’s careers. Robert is forced to choose between his conscience and his ambition, his brother and his bomb. Need I tell you ambition wins, but not singlehandedly. The love Robert feels most is his passion for advanced mathematical equations. He cannot resist evaluating the formulas written by Edward Teller for an even more destructive hydrogen bomb.
The relationship between Robert the elder Oppenheimer as well as the more brilliant, dominant and dynamic, and his younger brother Frank who initially took a different path before following the road taken by his older brother, is both competitive and caring. Robert’s caring comes with a subtext of superiority. Robert sees Frank as a “second rate” physicist who Robert rescued and brought to Los Alamos when he learned Frank was about to be fired from his job at Berkeley. Both brothers, like many idealistic young men in the ‘30’s, were attracted by the Communist Party but Robert either had the wisdom, the sense, or both, not to join while Frank who married a card carrying Commie and joined the party himself, lived to see his political “idealism” entirely change his life.
Josh Doucette as Frank Oppenheimer and Hugh Sinclair as General Leslie Groves were exceptionally compelling. But there was no question about who the star of the event or drama was: it was Jordan Kaplan’s electric performance as Robert Oppenheimer. Also peerless are both playwright Jack Karp’s scholarship and dramatic writing. He includes actual speeches by Robert Oppenheimer in the script of the play.
The Red Fern Theatre Company
The Theater at the 14th Street Y
344 East 14th Street
Through March 29th www.redferntheatre.org