“Relativity,” at Taproot Theatre, uses a fictional Albert Einstein to ruminate on the question: Does a genius deserve a pass for bad behavior?
The absent-minded genius with the shaggy nimbus of white hair, standing before a blackboard filled with equations. The brilliant eccentric, an inveterate violin player and bicycle rider.
In his new play “Relativity,” Mark St. Germain endeavors to get beyond our common (and cuddly) images of Albert Einstein. He wants to zoom in on this totemic physicist as a man, warts and all, and trigger a philosophical debate about greatness versus goodness.
Taproot Theatre’s staging of “Relativity” is the final installment of its national “rolling premiere” at several regional theaters. And like St. Germain’s widely produced “Freud’s Last Session” (seen at Taproot in 2012), about the progenitor of modern psychology, this talky encounter with a 20th-century mover and shaker is historical and speculative, scintillating and clunky, revealing and contrived.
By Mark St. Germain. Through Oct. 21 at Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St., Seattle; $27-$47 (206-781-9707 or taproottheatre.org).
What “Relatively” does best, script-wise and in Scott Nolte’s well-paced mounting, is conjure a multidimensional Einstein. In Dennis Bateman’s capably shrewd and natural performance, he’s the mental giant behind the fundamental Theory of Relativity. (Or as every high-school student learns, “Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared.”) But he’s also an incorrigible flirt, a pampered and demanding Great Man, a sly and media-conscious wit — and, unsurprisingly, no ideal husband nor father.
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The framing for this portrait is fictional, and improbable. In 1949, while a professor at Princeton University, the 70-year-old Einstein is accosted by an attractive younger woman — Margaret Harding (Candace Vance), who claims to be a journalist for a Jewish newspaper. Through flattery and rather obnoxious persistence, she is invited into his home on the spot for some tea and an interview.
But after Harding drops the eye-batting deference and the Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations stream of Einstein sayings, she bombards him with leading questions about his personal past — to the point where he asks, “Is this an interview or an interrogation?”
Interrogation it is, and indictment. He’s castigated for stormy relationships with his former wife and two sons. And he’s raked over for his treatment of a baby girl whom Einstein (a German-Jewish native) and his first wife, Mileva, had back in Europe, some 40 years earlier.
Fact check: The Einsteins did have an offspring named Lieserl. But her parents never spoke publicly about her. And though it’s been theorized she died in infancy, or was put up for adoption, her fate is unproven.
With a foreshadowed twist and rather convoluted backstory revealed via letters and other devices, the 80-minute one-act pivots from bio-mystery to rumination on heroes with feet of clay: Does a genius deserve a pass for bad behavior? And, in this case, does serving humanity with scientific discovery excuse misogyny, and (alleged) child abuse and abandonment?
The debate that ensues here is unwinnable, and on Harding’s side, simplistic and not well served by Vance’s overly mannered and shrill Harding. The accuser brands Bateman’s unrepentant Einstein a “monster” for his faults, insisting that “for greatness there should be goodness,” without which there is “no moral order.”
Yes and Santa Claus should be a real guy, too, Einstein all but tells her. Though she seizes the moral high ground, he defends and justifies his obsession with work over family unflinchingly, at every turn, as does his devoted housekeeper-assistant (Pam Nolte).
The extended, lopsided debate and later plot contrivances eventually prove less interesting than other aspects of Einstein. Like his genius, in the lively show-and-tell (which even science-phobes can grasp) probing of the theory of relativity in relation to quantum physics and chaos theory.
And then there are the fleeting references to Einstein’s outspoken pacifism, anti-fascism and support for civil rights — which put him under FBI scrutiny. There might be a play in that — one that may not necessarily enshrine him as a pillar of virtue but could offer an actor like Bateman an even more dimensional role.