‘Insignificance’ Demonstrates That All Is Relative (4 Stars)

‘Insignificance’ – Written by Terry Johnson; Directed by Daniel Gidron; Produced by The Nora Theatre Company. At the Central Square Theatre, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge through February 9.

Those who only know Albert Einstein as the developer of the Theory of Relativity or as “the father of the atomic age” may not be aware of his well-deserved reputation as a philosopher. The same guy responsible for E=mc2 is also the author of a number of quotes that have little to do with science but a lot to do with the human condition. So in addition to his obvious contributions to physics, he also is credited with conveying a good deal of wisdom with such gems as, “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it” and “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.” It is this side of Einstein that becomes apparent in the thought-provoking production of “Insignificance” now playing at the Central Square Theater.

As the play opens, the Professor (the Einstein character – none of the characters are identified by name but are easy to distinguish) is busy making notes, apparently calculating the shape of the universe, when a knock comes on his hotel room door. In comes Senator and communist Witch Hunter Joe McCarthy with two bottles of booze, and he is there to make sure that Einstein will show up to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee the next day instead of addressing the World Peace conference for which he was scheduled. After making some not-so-thinly veiled threats, he leaves, but there is soon another knock on the door. This time it is Marilyn Monroe, who has been outside shooting the famous scene from “The Seven Year Itch” where her white dress is blown above her head. She’s there to demonstrate her take on the Theory of Relativity (using little flashlights and a magazine as props) to the Professor, amusingly in exchange for Einstein giving HER a leg shot. And this is where the play moves out of the absurdity of the setup (Joe DiMaggio later makes an appearance at the hotel room as well) and the narrative really begins taking shape. 

The two talk long into the night about relativity, but less about the scientific implications of the theory and more about the practical ramifications of relativity to our lives. At one point as Monroe and Einstein are looking out the window, first at the neon billboard bearing her name and then at the stars in the sky, he tells her that the stars in the galaxy aren’t aware of how their size and luminosity make human beings feel insignificant or lonely, and it’s a fairly touching moment.  There’s also a line of dialogue where Einstein describes his feelings about being recognized on the street and being hounded as if the crowds were a “a troupe of clowns following an old automobile down the street.”

Fame has its price for all of the characters in this play, because despite their fame, they are all tortured to some degree. The playwright paints Einstein as a man deeply troubled by his role in the development of the atomic bomb and its subsequent devastation to humanity, and there are a couple of brief but telling episodes to drive home the point. Monroe, despite being desired by every man in America, can’t bear children or sustain a loving relationship; McCarthy will be remembered as an extremist demagogue who died a painful alcoholic death; and DiMaggio, while is one of the greatest ballplayers of the century, is essentially one dimensional (the persona, not Alexander Platt’s performance).

The performances in this play are very good, beginning with Stacy Fischer’s Monroe, which is truly outstanding. Fischer may not be the physical embodiment of the actress (who is?) but she conveys the torment of the star convincingly without the overly breathy characterizations so often seen by those portraying her. Barry M. Press is appropriately loathsome as McCarthy and Platt gives a layered performance as the dumb jock. Richard McElvain’s Einstein is both poignant and funny. The writing of this play is first rate and the dialogue is potent. Although the ending does not draw any clear conclusions or produce any epiphanies (at least for this reviewer), the joy (as the philosophers say) was in the journey. For more info, go to: http://www.centralsquaretheater.org/season/13-14/insignificance.html