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THEATER / MARK CHALON SMITH : Albert Einstein: Comic Genius? : Ed Metzger's One-Man Show Tries to Add Human Dimension to the Image of the Brilliant Scientist

September 17, 1993|MARK CHALON SMITH

Albert Einstein, brilliant theorist, king of the atom, regretful father of The Bomb . . . and master of 101 Jewish jokes.

"Most people don't know that about him, but he was a real comedian, or at least wanted to be one," said Ed Metzger, who brings his one-man show, "Albert Einstein: The Practical Bohemian," to Saddleback College in Mission Viejo on Saturday.

"When I began researching my play, I talked to one of his sons, who didn't really give me a lot of good information at first. But as I was leaving, he stopped and said he had something for me.

"It turns out that Einstein had this book called '101 Jewish Jokes' and tried to memorize it so he could tell them at supper. Of course, he always messed up the punch line, but the family would laugh because it was 'Albert Einstein, famous scientist' trying to be a wise guy," Metzger said.

Our image of the man behind the theory of relativity, who devised perhaps the most famous equation in history--E=mc 2--in the process, doesn't often include that of court jester. But that's part of what Metzger wants his performance to reveal: Einstein was a wonderfully complex figure, and not only because he had one of the biggest brains ever to fill a cranium.

"I really want to round out our perceptions. I want to touch on his theories but really focus on his personal life," explained Metzger, a Los Angeles actor who wrote the play with his wife, Laya Gelff, and first staged it in 1978.

"He was a genius, sure, but he was also a lousy father, a man who got divorced and a guy who really loved women. He's firmly ensconced in our imaginations, but he was also one of the mortals, not a god."

The genesis of "Albert Einstein: The Practical Bohemian" can be traced to the late '70s. Metzger was doing well as a movie actor, having supporting roles in "Dog Day Afternoon" with Al Pacino and other films. But he wanted to return to the stage, especially in a one-man show. Hal Holbrook was winning audiences with "Mark Twain Tonight," so why shouldn't Metzger give it a go?

But who would be the subject? Metzger hoped to do a president, but his favorite, John F. Kennedy, proved too much of a challenge.

"First off, I don't look anything like him," said Metzger, 53. "He was really the only one I felt inspired enough to take on, but I ruled him out. Later, I was sitting in a coffee shop with a bunch of friends when I casually mentioned Einstein.

"That little suggestion caused a furor; it emptied the coffee shop. But when I got home and told my wife, she asked what I knew about him. I said 'uh, E=mc 2?,' and she said, 'Sounds like a pretty short show . . . but let's investigate him anyway.' "

Metzger and Gelff pored over historical archives, seeking anecdotes. The emerging profile was interesting, but the facts were well known: details about his fleeing Nazi Germany in 1933, his physics experiments, his associations with such scientists as Enrico Fermi, his lifelong pacifism and his reluctance to get involved with developing the atomic bomb during World War II.

Metzger and his wife, though, wanted something more personal, so they sought out his son, Hans Albert Einstein, then a hydraulics engineer living in San Francisco. Hans Einstein was reluctant at first, but once the Jewish jokes anecdote broke the ice, he was more revealing.

The son said his father was, above all, amused by the public's reaction to him. He found it humorous that legions could be fascinated by his genius while giggling over his eccentricities. The frizzy hair, the mismatched socks, the absent-minded professor tics all carried weight in the collective mind, almost as much as his transcendent intelligence.

Metzger also learned that Einstein was not exactly a Dr. Spock role model; apparently, he had ignored his children.

"The way it was told to me was that Einstein had plenty of quality time for Jupiter, Mars and the universe, but not much quality time for his kids," Metzger said.

It also became clear, at least according to Hans Einstein, that Einstein was something of a ladies' man. Maybe not a gigolo with a seductive patter of math witticisms at the ready, but a regular guy who loved their company and may have had an affair or two following the death of his second wife. Einstein divorced his first.

Metzger includes these anecdotes in the play, which begins with Einstein leaving Germany in the early days of Hitler's reign. The show covers much territory, ending near the time the United States dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima. Many believe that the government-funded Manhattan Project wouldn't have been possible without Einstein's earlier research.

"That's a crucial spot to end with because it's (so ironic) that he was, even in an indirect way, associated with that," Metzger said. "Einstein was completely against violence and often preached pacifism (in lectures and elsewhere). From what I can tell, he agreed to support (the Manhattan Project) because FDR promised him that the bomb would be dropped on an uninhabited island.

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