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Theatre in Review: Insignificance (Defibrillator/Langham Place)

Susannah Hoffman. Photo: Jenny Anderson

In Insignificance, the playwright Terry Johnson has put Albert Einstein, Senator Joe McCarthy, Marilyn Monroe, and Joe DiMaggio in a hotel room. In the production by the London-based theatre company Defibrillator, we're in the hotel room with them. It's the latest in site-specific theatre: Ticketholders arrive at the hotel Langham Place, on Fifth Avenue in the 30s. In the lobby, you are given a wristband and are whisked up to the fifth floor. After you check your coat, you mill around in a waiting room; water, pretzels, and hard candies are available, and drinks can be purchased. You can kill time looking at the 1950s movie posters on the wall or viewing video montages of Jackie Gleason, Jack Benny, the trailer for the film Shane, and Eisenhower-era footage. There is also a film of mushroom clouds, which cues the inevitable orientation video, here framed as a warning from the Department of Civil Defense: After the usual caveats -- turn off your cell phone, if you leave the room you can't return, etc. -- you are led into a moderate-sized hotel bedroom.

The seating is arranged with three rows each on two sides of the room and an additional row running along a third wall. There is also a row of standing room. In order to accommodate 50 audience members, the sardine method has been employed; it's rather like flying in the last row on Southwest Airlines. Sightlines have not been seriously considered. If you're in the second or third rows, you're looking at heads all night. Also, the first few minutes of the play unfold in near darkness, with one table light, next to the bed, turned on. Finally a second bed light is illuminated, and when a large floor lamp came on, I was almost pathetically grateful.

Has the sacrifice of comfort paid off in dramatic immediacy, a more vivid theatrical experience? One wonders what made James Hillier, the director, choose Insignificance for such a presentation. Surely, the idea of immersing the audience this way is meant to create an intensified sense of reality, to shatter the fourth wall that separates the watchers from the watched -- but if that's so, why pick a play that is so steeped in artifice? If the talented four-person cast were playing totally fictional creations, it would be possible to feel that we were eavesdropping on real people in a real situation. But there's no way for them to represent four of the decade's -- even the century's -- most storied personalities without resorting to a variety of technical tricks, that, in extreme close-up, look remarkably fake. (The characters are named The Professor, The Ballplayer, The Actress, and The Senator, but this is a coy tactic; never for a second are their identities in question.) Max Baker, Anthony Comis, and Susannah Hoffman are all creditable professionals, but, at this distance, their technique is left cruelly exposed; they seem like the cast members in some weird theme park. It's probably no surprise that Michael Pemberton, as McCarthy, gives the most successful performance. Not only is he the least famous of the characters -- giving the actor much more room to maneuver -- he is the drama's malevolent force, lending to his scenes a crackle that is otherwise missing.

Indeed, there may be a reason that Johnson's play, written in 1982, hasn't been seen in New York before now. (A successful man of the theatre in the UK, he has been represented on Broadway as the writer/director of the stage version of the film The Graduate, the director of the 2010 revival of La Cage aux Folles, and the director of the 2012 Judy Garland bio drama End of the Rainbow.) I'm afraid that Insignificance is an all-too-apt title; the play is all concept and no payoff. The hotel room belongs to Einstein, who is ostensibly in New York to attend a conference on world peace, but he is really being coerced by McCarthy into naming names before the HUAC; Einstein himself has been named several times, and it's time for him to defend himself. McCarthy's intent is to de-Sovietize, if you will, America's greatest scientific celebrity, in order to reinvent him as a spokesperson for atomic weaponry. Einstein resists; in retaliation, McCarthy confiscates the scientist's notes on his almost-completed unified field theory. This is pure fiction: Einstein never testified, nor were McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover able to build a case against him; also, why is the HUAC holding hearings in New York and not Washington?

His threats made, McCarthy departs, and Marilyn enters in her famous white dress from The Seven Year Itch. She has been filming nearby, shooting the iconic scene in which an updraft from a subway grating lifts her skirt; bored, she has come to demonstrate to Einstein her grasp of the theory of relativity -- which she does with the aid of a few props tucked away in a chic little shopping bag. (This sequence is much less charming than Johnson thinks it is.) Before long, she is crying the blues about her marriage to DiMaggio and proposing to the nonplussed Einstein. DiMaggio shows up and, for a distressingly long time, he and Monroe hash out their remarkably uninteresting marital problems.

Indeed, one of the big problems of Insignificance is that it tries to coast on its characters' fame, assuming that anything they do will prove captivating. But Johnson lazily relies on our familiarity with them, adding nothing to their stereotyped personas. Einstein is a charmingly distracted old duffer, a benignly mad scientist who occasionally rises up in high moral dudgeon. McCarthy is a hard-drinking brute, not above striking a lady, and seeing Communists behind every potted palm. Monroe, her grasp of scientific theory notwithstanding, is the same fragile girl-woman of a hundred memoirs and TV films. DiMaggio is a gum-popping goon, with the manners of a mob henchman. (In one of the play's few original bits, DiMaggio, trying to win Monroe back, claims that his apparent stupidity is a choice, and, if Marilyn will take him back, he promises to read all day while she is working on the set; for just a second, we get a glimpse of the wounded ego behind the hero's fa├žade.) The dullish conversation -- filled with attempts at humor that don't pay off -- winds down without ever reaching much of a climax. It's indicative of the show's problems that the main event of Act II is the unraveling of the Monroe-DiMaggio marriage, surely the least interesting choice among those on offer.

Amy Cook is credited as the designer, although it's not clear if she fully furnished the room or if the Langham Place is one of those hotels that feature a mildly period look; in any case, it's reasonably convincing and her costumes, including a beautifully detailed suit for DiMaggio (who is clearly a clotheshorse), are fine. Christopher Gerson is credited with lighting effects; the bulk of the play is lit with the four practical lamps, but I think he provides in the room's windows a colored blinking-light effect for Act I, which takes place at night, and a bright-white look for Act II, set the following morning. (There may be a few more lighting instruments hidden around the room -- although, if so, I wish the actors' faces had been more visible.) Gerson also creates a flickering atomic bomb effect, in conjunction with the sound designer Mark Van Hare, that is undeniably impressive.

But little else about Insignificance is: this a case of a problematic play further hurt by a kind of stunt production. Some extraordinarily people have been made unconscionably dull. -- David Barbour


(24 February 2016)

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