Victory Gardens Theater

David C. Field’s new play is about unknowability, both the uncertainty principle and the inaccessibility of contemporary physics to laypersons. And maybe for that reason he made the piece indeterminate: it’s impossible to ascertain who or what it’s about. But what might have been a bold conceit in an experimental work–embodying ambiguity in a play that’s partly about ambiguity–is just muddy thinking here.

Symmetry has a conventional structure: boy gets opportunity, boy loses opportunity, boy gets different opportunity. Oscar Newman is a brilliant physicist teaching at Albuquerque State out of a mysterious all-consuming loyalty to his mentor, department head Neal Julian. The setting is also conveniently near the home of Oscar’s late mother, a famous watercolorist conveniently influenced by the Eastern philosophy taught by Oscar’s office mate, equally brilliant scholar Ecco Sagada, who’s consigned to Albuquerque for equally mysterious reasons. When Oscar writes a mind-blowing paper, the vultures descend on him: gazillionaire John Slocum, who wants to co-opt his talents for commerce; elderly physicist Edmond Lakos, who wants to recruit him for Berkeley; and Neal, who wants his continued presence at Albuquerque as collateral for Slocum’s investment in a new building. Oh, and Neal’s wife, Myra, wants to (1) sleep with Oscar and (2) return to New York.

Field’s characters are interesting, with the exception of Sagada: her philosophical knowledge consists of fortune-cookie nuggets–everything is nothing and vice versa–and her move into Oscar’s office in act one produces no results whatsoever in act two. But the plot is overstuffed: Oscar turns out to be the son of an intelligence officer killed mysteriously, Slocum and Lakos are both Hungarian refugees, Neal is dying, Sagada happens to have a book by an Indian physicist that happens to illuminate the very problem Oscar is wrestling with, and on and on. All these threads are worth following, but if you weave every which way with a piece of naturalistic theater, you end up with a knotty mess instead of a tapestry. This script could have been about how three men compete to be Oscar’s father, or about Oscar’s discovery that physics and Eastern religion are one, or about how academic politics distorts the search for truth, or even about the kindness of strangers–but it can’t be about all of them.

Field handles the intellectual content lightly: there’s enough jargon to render the scientific talk persuasive (at least to this nonphysicist) and enough general information to sustain his quest for metaphors. But when it comes to Eastern religions, again he’s less convincing, conflating nonsense like feng shui with the rigorous thought of Zen masters. And why must the avatar of mystery and selflessness be an Asian woman? We’re still trotting out Madame Butterfly?

Still, this smart script is a welcome change from the back-porch melodramas Victory Gardens has traditionally produced, and Dennis Zacek’s crisp direction complements the work’s complex content. Aaron Roman Weiner charms as Oscar, lecturing the audience-cum-physics-class with a buoyant clarity all teachers should emulate. He also gracefully handles the task of being everyone’s darling, especially in such overdetermined moments as when Slocum calls him by his dead son’s name. Matt DeCaro as Neal, J.J. Johnston as Slocum, and William J. Norris as Lakos are perfect as three wily players trying to get what they want from Oscar, and Meg Thalken is superb as the frustrated Myra, whose aria about Albuquerque ascends to a pinnacle of disgust at “those goddamn pictures of howling dogs!”

Too bad that Field tried so hard for significance. The play would have been stronger if he’d remembered the Buddhist lesson from David Bader’s book Zen Judaism: “It takes effort to attain nothingness. And then what do you have? Bupkes.”

When: Through 7/10: Tue-Fri 8 PM, Sat 5 and 8:30 PM, Sun 3 PM. Wed 6/22, 2 and 8 PM.

Where: Victory Gardens Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln

Price: $28-$33

Info: 773-871-3000

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.