Chicago Theatre Review
‘Relativity’ a superlative take on an icon of science and genius
Relativity- Northlight Theatre
Any review of Northlight Theatre’s production of “Relativity” will mention this most important fact, so I might as well begin my own review acknowledging it front and center – whatever the production’s merits (and there are indeed many), the most notable aspect of “Relativity” is that it stars Mike Nussbaum, the legendary Chicago actor who is not only, at 94, the oldest actor nationwide still working on the stage, but undoubtedly one of the finest actors ever to grace the stage. To see Nussbaum is to see a true master at work, and he could make even the most meandering, superfluous material into riveting theater.
But thankfully, Nussbaum and his two co-stars (the similarly distinguished Ann Whitney and superlative Katherine Keberlein) are blessed with Mark St. Germain’s writing, which is witty, emotional, and probing all at the same time. Set in the early 1940s, “Relativity” follows a day in the life of Albert Einstein (Nussbaum), who by then had fully embraced his role as the world’s most famous scientist. Comfortable (to a fault) with his tenured position at Princeton, Einstein spends his days warding off admirers, bickering with his housekeeper (Whitney), flirting with younger women, and attempting to reconcile the stubbornly contradictory fields of relativity and quantum mechanics.
Until, that is, he is paid a visit by Margaret Harding (Keberlein), a young woman presenting herself as an upstart journalist for the Jewish Daily. Asking for an interview, Harding and Einstein begin chatting under the guise of a newspaper profile, but it soon becomes very clear that Harding has much different aims in store, and that the cozy, adorable Einstein the public sees is much different than the driven, ambitious, arguably callous Einstein that Harding is seeking to confront.
Much of “Relativity” is fictional. Margaret Harding, for instance, did not exist, and she did not challenge Einstein to confront the skeletons in his closet. And Germain takes certain liberties with Einstein’s history, namely with his children. Yet, director BJ Jones and his talented cast have created a definitive portrait of Einstein, and it is precisely because of those liberties that “Relativity” succeeds so wildly. We are not simply given a portrait of Einstein, but rather, a dramatic account that challenges our basic assumptions of the man, a work of art that bends reality to intensify it. Einstein may have never spent an afternoon dueling with Margaret Harding about morality and the meaning of life, but in the talented hands of Germain, Nussbaum, and company, that fiction – one complemented by research and facts – provides an all-encompassing, altogether engrossing profile of who the man truly was.
In a way, “Relativity” is a most fascinating counterpoint to “Pamplona,” the world-premiere show at The Goodman featuring Stacy Keach as Ernest Hemingway. A one-man-show, “Pamplona” suffers by comparison to “Relativity,” and for one simple reason – it lacks the perspective and skepticism that Germain is able to provide with his additional characters. Because “Pamplona” offers us Hemingway – and only Hemingway – we are forever trapped in his perspective; to put it bluntly, there is nobody around to call him out on his bullshit. And as a result, storytelling and myth overwhelm truth, and we are given a profile that is not as probing or questioning as we would like.
But none of those problems exist with “Relativity,” and like the actor at the center of it, the show is to be cherished, experienced, and heartily recommended.
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Presented through June 25 at Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Boulevard, Skokie, IL 60077
Tickets are available by calling (847) 673-6300 or by visiting http://www.northlight.org
Additional information about this and other spectacular area productions is available at the one, the only, the indefatigable www.theatreinchicago.com.