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Theatre in Review: The Half-Life of Marie Curie (Minetta Lane Theatre)

Frances Faridany, Kate Mulgrew. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Improbably, as if via nuclear fission, the life of an iconic female scientist is converted into sparkling high comedy in this amusing, enlightening two-hander. If you're expecting a reverent biography of the co-discoverer of radium -- I certainly was -- you're in for a big surprise at the Minetta Lane. The Half-Life of Marie Curie begins with the title character barricaded in her Paris home, the subject of a sex scandal; having lost her beloved husband and collaborator, Pierre, a few years earlier, Marie has fallen into an affair with the married physicist Paul Langevin. The unhappy Mrs. Langevin has leaked some of their love letters to the press, with the result that Marie is being publicly smeared as some kind of Polish-Jewish vampire who wrecks homes for the sport of it. (The only true bit is her Polish ancestry.) Things have gotten so bad that her children are afraid to attend school.

Swooping in, armed with a rescue plan, is Hertha Ayrton, herself a formidable scientist although you may not recognize her name. Looking out into the house, she announces, "There was a technical problem in the world, and I fixed it and you're welcome." (For the record, she discovered why, at the dawn of the Edison era, arc lamps made so much noise, devising a solution that made possible the widespread use of electric light.) A committed feminist outfitted with a can-do attitude and a tart British tongue, she is determined to get Marie out of her current dilemma, spiriting her off to the English seaside for some much-needed rest and recuperation.

As played by Kate Mulgrew, Hertha applies her coolly practical mind to any situation, no matter how emotionally fraught, with distinctively comic results. Queried about her daughters, she reports, "They're fabulous! Barbie's in jail and I couldn't be happier." Fuming over the injustice of Marie's situation, she says, with determination, "Don't worry. I've already worked out a list of people to murder." When Marie remonstrates with her, she replies, in a voice oozing sweet reason, "It's not a long list." Checking out a letter of support, written to Marie by a certain famous colleague, Hertha asks, "What's this bit at the end?" Marie replies, "He goes on about the statistical law of motion of the diatomic molecule." Sighing, Hertha adds, "Not sure I'd've put the hard physics in the postscript, but I'm not Einstein."

Indeed, Mulgrew functions as a kind of arc lamp here, setting off sparks whether announcing, "I'm an electromechanical engineer and a mother of two, I can fix anything;" declaring her intention to take Marie's daughters in hand and "distract them with suffragist ideology and chocolate;" or, reacting to the news that Paul has been dueling over Marie's honor, deadpanning, "I just hoped it was a maths duel or something." It's a fine case of an actress and her role coming together, like particles in a collider, with incandescent results.

Mulgrew is well-matched with Francesca Faridany's Marie, who is possessed of a more romantic, even mystical turn of mind. Staring at the piece of radium that she always keeps with her, she says, "It's more constant than a flame. A gaze. Like it can't take its eyes off you. Like the love of your life." Her feelings about her singular achievement are tied up with those for her much-missed husband. "Together," she says, "we shoveled small mountains of pitchblende in a sooty shed, dissolved it in acid, boiled it down, scraped the black bits to purify this element. Ten tons of the rock we shoveled, distilled into just enough radium to sprinkle on your fingertip. That's a certain kind of marriage, don't you think?"

As it happens, Marie's habit of wearing a pendant filled with radium like a talisman threatens to cause a serious breach between the women. Hertha, noting the black patches on Marie's skin and her constant state of illness, is convinced that the substance is toxic, and she doesn't want it anywhere near her or her children. But Marie, spellbound by her discovery, refuses to believe that it is anything but benign. (Of course, she died of radium poisoning, albeit many years later.) Such clashing points of view make for a gripping confrontation, but it ends more or less unresolved, exposing the main weakness of The Half-Life of Marie Curie: As an informative piece about two brilliant women who swam against the tide of their time, it has plenty to say, often in a glittering manner. In the drama department, however, it is slightly deficient. The playwright, Lauren Gunderson, may be sticking to the historical record, but in choosing to celebrate her characters and their friendship, she declines to put them into a state of conflict. There are missed opportunities here; for one thing, it would be fascinating to probe why Marie, with her acute powers of observation, was so blind to the effects of radium. In addition, Marie's publicity problems -- which could also be a source of drama -- fade away, offstage, when the war begins and she is transformed into a national heroine by inventing the traveling radiological unit known as the "petite Curie," which saved the lives of countless soldiers. At times, The Half-Life of Marie Curie feels like a lecture, if an unusually entertaining one.

In any case, Gaye Taylor Upchurch's incisive direction keeps things buoyant, and the production unfolds pleasantly on Rachel Hauck's set, which is framed by a network of leaded windows -- an accurate period style -- that are frequently transformed by Amith Chandrashanker's lovely lighting. (A pink-and-purple sky look is especially attractive.) Sarah Laux dresses each character sensibly and in a distinct style. Darron L West's sound design blends Chopin piano ├ętudes -- one of Marie's daughters was a gifted musician -- with effects that include lamp noise, breaking glass, church bells, angry crowds, and the clicking sound that one associates with Geiger counters.

And the ladies make for excellent company. Mulgrew effortlessly projects Hertha's astonishment on discovering that her friend has been awarded a second Nobel Prize, her joy exploding into rage on hearing that the Nobel Committee has asked Marie - who has been branded a scarlet woman -- not to attend. "I'm certainly being punished," says Marie, Improbably, since she doesn't believe in heavenly wrath. "I think it's what every woman is punished for," replies Hertha. "Being alive and enjoying it." Happily, these two excellent women fight back, and history provides them with the last laugh. --David Barbour

(10 December 2019)

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