SAN DIEGO — At one point in Howard Brenton's "The Genius," playing through Nov. 8 on the Lyceum Stage at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, the main character, a nuclear physicist, announces that he is going to take "a walk in the woods" to figure out what he should do with his bomb-building knowledge.
In the context of the play, which premiered four years ago in London, the line has no great moment. But its parallel to the La Jolla Playhouse's "A Walk in the Woods," the Lee Blessing play that recently took the San Diego theater-going community by storm, highlights other parallels of greater significance.
Both plays tackle the often conflicting impulses of conscience and survival that attend questions of who should take responsibility for the destructive potential of arms afforded by modern nuclear technology.
Conceptually, "A Walk in the Woods" seems the lighter play. How much is there to say, after all, about two arms negotiators who fail to come to an agreement over the course of four seasons? The way Blessing tells the story--plenty.
And what can go wrong with Brenton's updating of Bertolt Brecht's brilliant "Galileo," in which Brenton recasts the 17th-Century physicist at war with the church as a 20th-Century physicist at war with several governments?
The answer, sadly, is the same--plenty.
"The Genius," in exploring an ambitious theme, is not without its dazzling moments, both on the part of the playwright and the current Rep production. But, frustratingly, the occasional brightness just makes a stronger light to read its failures by.
It doesn't help that Brenton's powers of thought and expression here are so resoundingly outclassed by Brecht's.
Brecht's Galileo was at once a genius in his work and a man who, like most others, had a weakness for pleasure, a fear of pain and a sensitivity to those he loved--in his case, his daughter, who pleaded with him for a life that was not at war with the Church or her own chances for marital happiness.
What Brenton gives us instead is a rude, cocaine-snorting American in London, Leo Lehrer, who, when he is not making love with his best friend's wife in the open air for all to see, is working on the unified field theory, something which may lead to the ultimate bomb.
This in turn leads to discussions about how the secret, which is independently happened upon by another exceedingly clever young mathematician, can be kept from the United States and the Soviet Union.
In this way Brenton flips Brecht's premise about the value of knowledge for its own sake on its head, making a hero of Brenton's mathematicians and academics who, like Brecht's church elders, take it upon themselves to determine the greater good of humanity.
Only surprise No. 1: If these two can figure it out, so can others. And surprise No. 2: Since the United States and the Soviet Union can already destroy the world, just how much difference is this new bomb going to make anyway?
In the general absence of sympathetic characterization, the graceful, long-limbed Kathie Danger as mathematics student Gilly Brown provides some badly needed relief from the rhetoric. It is wrenching to see her exult in the beauty of numbers, before their application is explained to her, with the ingenuousness of an Eve before the Fall.
Jan Munroe, in contrast, is unrelievedly grating as the insufferable wise-guy Lehrer. But then, so are most of the men. Ollie Nash (as a university vice chancellor) and Doug Roberts (as a student) are, as usual, eye-catching, but there is no reward here for the watchful--their characters are ciphers from beginning to end.
Ralph Elias has the thankless role of the decent but weak chap who gets blamed for everything, including being bothered by his wife's cuckoldry; Carla Kirkwood is the insensitive wife who suddenly becomes a woman of conscience in the nuclear arena, and Andrea Long is the student activist whose fuzzily articulated beliefs wobble around a heart of gold.
The direction by Douglas Jacobs results in some crisp and biting vignettes that neither flow into a cohesive whole nor culminate in a comprehensible conclusion.
The protruding, curvaceous set by Mark Donnelly brings up further remembrances of "A Walk in the Woods"--but this time not to ill effect. Where "Woods" took naturalness to the extreme of using real trees and dirt, Donnelly works with poles and carpet squares that not only create a surreal, abstract atmosphere absolutely in tune with the intellectual argument at the heart of the play, but also provide a dandy bicycle-riding surface for Todd Blakesley as the wheeling--and dealing--fine arts lecturer and part-time Marxist spy.