J. Robert Oppenheimer had the whole world in his hands.
He was known as the father of the atomic bomb, a man instrumental in creating nuclear weaponry, in designing weapons of mass destruction.
His scientific innovations would be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, responsible for the destruction of both a figurative enemy force and actual human lives.
He would be challenged, on suspicion of disloyalty and dissent, by the very government that accepted him from the Nazi persecution he would be employed to decimate,
He had a lot on his plate. And that’s just his day job.
Oppie’s – because even bomb creators get nicknames – internal monologue during these trying times is documented in “The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” a fascinating play by Carson Kreitzer that kicked off Subversive Theatre’s 11th season. It posits some of the company’s favorite questions on the relationships among man, state and duty.
It is a fine production of a good play that asks great questions. Kreitzer writes sturdy, brief scenes with poetic, rhetorical language, borrowing from both Aaron Sorkin’s playbook and Tony Kushner’s bible. Sorkin’s structure seems a blueprint for Kreitzer’s near-cinematic movement, where scenes transition fluidly even if they haven’t necessarily ended, and are summarized in distilled, anchored lines.
Kushner’s influence, however, is much more transparent, as though it were a tribute. Much of our protagonist’s stage time takes place in his mind, embodied by a spiritualized, vague figurehead that dispenses wisdom and rhetoric. He’s never bored, even in his loneliest place. Man’s self-possession, common in Kushner’s protagonists, is a fitting frame through which to examine Oppenheimer’s conflict: how to play God and live with yourself.
Richard Lambert plays our guy with even conviction that’s full of fragility, typical of Lambert’s implosive touches. He’s confident in his creation – a man who believes, with every fiber, in science – if terrified of its purpose. Lambert carries Oppenheimer in stride, but is terribly broken inside, as if Willy Loman and Michael Corleone made a baby. He is a fascinating character.
Enter Lilith, an intravenous drip of doubt and guilt on his conscious. Maria Nicole Held is our wise one, the interpretation of a liturgical Jewish figure known for eating her children. Held does very good things with a role that’s ambiguous enough to go anywhere, but with which director Michael Lodick unfortunately takes us nowhere.
This is an odd part. Kreitzer gives Lilith many of the play’s best lines, those Sorkinian truths about war and state, man and duty. And sure, she’s an existential spirit that defies physical articulation. But Lodick’s vision of her as an otherworldly creature, of sorts – part sloth, part phoenix, part therapist – is a total distraction. He puts her in her own way, to the detriment of an otherwise well-paced production.
Dressed in a nude one-piece with body paint that suggests a Laugh-In love-in, Held scales the levels of Lodick’s set, maneuvering like Gollum over and around her surfaces, hissing and posturing with every syllable. There isn’t a single line that Lilith delivers with stillness, nary any true poignancy. Her serpent ways surely impart the devil’s strut, but there’s too much sideshow for her interrogative questions to resound. It’s unclear exactly how the part is written, though one would assume from this staging that she could exist in a far less acrobatic space and still hit her marks.
It is an anomaly – a big one, to be sure – in an otherwise calculated show. Wendy Hall helps anchor this with a performance, as wife Kitty Oppenheimer, that’s deliciously arresting.
Hall channels Katharine Hepburn’s handsome tenacity at the right time, and whispers at Kitty’s broken grace at the right time. There are layers at work here, in a show riddled with two-dimensional characters.
Supporting players run the gamut, from John Kennedy’s confusing Southern congressman, whose devilish charm is neither scary nor seductive, to Patrick Tighe’s impressive string of lighthearted accessory parts that adds to the absurdity of it all.
If only Oppenheimer’s drama weren’t so absurd.
2½ stars (out of four)
What: “The Love Song of Robert J. Oppenheimer”
When: Through Oct. 5
Where: Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow Ave.
Tickets: $20 to $25
Info: 408-0499 or subversivetheatre.org