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An Experiment in Mortality

Theater | Theater Review

The captivating 'Louis Slotin Sonata' ponders humankind's flirtations with death.

November 18, 1999|F. KATHLEEN FOLEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Paul Mullin's "Louis Slotin Sonata," presented by the Circle X Theatre Company at the Hollywood Court, is a rare bird--a new play that wraps intellectual complexity, emotional depth and theatrical derring-do into one tight and memorable package.

Based on a real-life incident--the fatal irradiation of a Canadian physicist in a Los Alamos laboratory accident in 1946--Mullin's drama unfolds on two levels: the linear factual account of the accident, much of it gleaned almost verbatim from declassified government documents, and the increasingly surreal version that transpires in Slotin's fevered imagination as he struggles to make sense of his life before he slips into coma and death.

Mullin's is not a perfect play--Slotin's hospital romance with a beautiful nurse (Ariana Navarre) doesn't quite play out, and a few far-flung philosophical tangents never make it past the experimental stage.

However, it is a prismatically complex play, reflecting both the shining good and the blinding evil of the human condition.

*

Neither god nor monster, Slotin (William Salyers) is a workaday physicist with a fatal tendency to grandstand. Showing off in the Los Alamos lab with a group of fellow scientists, Slotin sets out to "tickle the dragon's tail" in a risky demonstration of nuclear fission--a simple tabletop experiment he has done dozens of times. But a slip of the wrist triggers a deadly radiation burst, a tell-tale blue glow that signals Slotin's end.

But not before he has a chance to ponder his lot. Himself a Jew, Louis must confront the ethical obscurities of his death-dealing research in light of the recent Holocaust. In nightmares, he fancies himself possessed by the spirit of Josef Mengele, another scientist looking for new and improved ways to kill en masse.

The subject matter is as dense as a plutonium core, but Mullin's tragic tale is in no way unrelievedly grim. Mullin favors puns and wordplay, and delights in heightening historical events into towering absurdity.

In one bizarre, Dennis Potter-esque sequence, Slotin/Mengele croons a big-band-like tune while a chorus line of white-coated scientists cavort under a black light. It's bleak, it's cheeky--it's dazzling, as is much of the play.

Co-directors Jim Anzide and Jonathan Westerberg display unforced precision. Gary Smoot's stark set and Mara West's simple period costumes serve the actors well, while Dan Weingarten's clever lighting ranges from the unobtrusive to the vivid.

Peter Carlstedt's sound design, coupled with Tim Labor's original music, evocatively punctuates the action.

Spearheading the exceptional cast, Salyers keeps his reluctant hero achingly real and surprisingly funny throughout. Particularly moving is John Combs as Slotin's father, a staunch Old World Jew trying desperately to reconcile his son's brave new tragedy with his own beleaguered beliefs.

BE THERE

"Louis Slotin Sonata," Hollywood Court, 6817 Franklin Ave., Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Dec. 18. $15. (323) 969-9239, Ext. 2. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

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