Playwright Mark St. Germain has certainly proven his skill at bringing real-life people (Thomas Edison, Sigmund Freud, etc.) to the stage before in works like Camping with Henry and Tom and Freud’s Last Session. He does so again with Relativity, currently onstage in a National New Play Network “rolling” world premiere at Florida Studio Theatre’s Keating, where scientific genius Albert Einstein is the person under the microscope, so to speak.
It would probably be boring to do a typical one-man show with the actor playing Einstein holding forth about his life, so St. Germain decided on a “what if” scenario instead. He sends a woman who says she’s a journalist for a Jewish newspaper to interview the scientist, now (1948) ensconced as an eminence at Princeton. Would the real Einstein, apparently fiercely guarded by his housekeeper- cum-secretary-cum-something more (Sally Bondi), have allowed such a reporter to invade his privacy? Who knows, but there’d be no play if he didn’t here, so off we go.
The interview starts cordially enough, with Margaret (Ginger Lee McDermott) easing her way into the more probing personal questions that will set off alarms. It’s clear she’s done her homework; she’s already spoken with Einstein’s grown son, with whom he has a fairly cool relationship, as well as with a woman who was a close friend of Einstein’s first wife, Mileva. But what does she really want to know about the relativity theorist whose public image is that of a white-haired wise man quick with a quip?
It has something to do with a disappeared daughter born many years ago named Lieserl, and the more documents Margaret keeps pulling out of her handbag, the more it becomes clear that Einstein the public man and Einstein the private family man are two very different people.
But St. Germain takes on more than buried family secrets. He loves a good debate, and here the intriguing and impassioned discussion between Margaret and Albert (Robert Zukerman) centers on whether it’s possible for a great man to also be a good man. Is it acceptable for geniuses to live by a different code than most men, in order to bring their gifts to the world for posterity? Or does nothing excuse a lack of compassion or caring for those closest to them?
The playwright lays this question out thoughtfully, and Zukerman and McDermott bring it to life with zest under the taut direction of Jason Cannon. Both actors are adept at delivering the quick back-and-forth arguments here without becoming academic, and Zukerman masters the difficult task of portraying a famous figure without ever seeming to impersonate. His Einstein is believable when he moves from “playing” the well-known man, as Margaret says, to really looking at the choices he’s made and defending them.
In only 80 minutes (with no intermission), St. Germain and his cast pack a lot of intellectual and emotional punch. Relativity continues through July 2; for tickets call 366-9000 or go to floridastudiotheatre.org.