Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company

The theory of relativity may be this century’s great scientific find, as the theory of evolution was for the 19th. But where evolution suggested progress to its Victorian partisans, relativity conjures up isolation, fragmentation, even personal insignificance–the fear that no Newtonian center can hold things together. (Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle,” another development in physics, says the same thing in another way.)

But relativity applies to more than the speed of light. It’s a metaphor for the way many see today’s world: because we’re bombarded by competing and compelling images of reality–from science, from Hollywood, from politics and sports–our own direct perceptions carry less weight.

British playwright Terry Johnson’s richly wrought Insignificance, a cultural collage that both invigorates and entertains, plays brilliant variations on its own scheme of relativity. Johnson uses highly unlikely but far from random encounters to throw together four very different characters in a New York hotel room in 1954.

Called only the Professor, the Actress, the Senator, and the Ballplayer, Johnson’s archetypes are pretty much clones of Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Senator Joseph McCarthy, and Joe DiMaggio–cultural icons who initially suggest, to put it crudely, the brain, the body, a bastard, and a life-size baseball card, the salt of the earth. However different they may be, each is stuck in a restrictive reality, faces a turning point in his or her career, and stands to lose something valuable on this very significant evening.

The play’s first–and last–image prevails: the Professor staring, as if peering past the end of the universe, at a blackboard covered with equations. In New York to attend a conference on world peace, he’s been subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The Senator barges into the room, pours himself a stiff drink, and tries to browbeat the Professor into squealing on his “Commie” colleagues at tomorrow’s inquisition. The Senator has reason to be desperate: the hearings themselves are under attack, and to justify the witch-hunt he needs to land a big fish like the Professor.

To the Professor, this is all deadly familiar–and irrelevant. A lifetime of searching for the apolitical truth has taught him how little moral relativism humankind can tolerate; every group–Nazis, conservatives, anti-Semites, and leftists–has accused him of being the enemy. And the “Un-American Committee,” as he calls it, is just one more. Now his sole hope is to rein in the nuclear menace he helped to unleash nine years before, and to discover a unified field theory. (Einstein himself was less indifferent. He wrote, “If enough people are not willing to take this grave step [refusing to testify], the intellectuals of this country deserve nothing better than the slavery which is intended for them.”)

The Professor’s moral opposite, the oily, insecure Senator, a man with a file on everyone, exudes the corrupt, yes-or-no absolutism that makes persecution possible. But that’s his public image–the patriotic statesman. In fact, the Senator gleefully explains, he believes only in himself: nothing else is real, the world is a hallucination produced and controlled by his consciousness. His narcissism, more fit for the 80s than the 50s, makes him capable of anything.

After the Senator slinks off, the Actress bangs on the Professor’s door. Looking like the giant billboard that’s said to be outside the hotel window, she wears a full-length fur and what looks like Monroe’s famous white dress, the one blown up by the breeze from a subway grate in The Seven Year Itch. She’s come to impress the Professor with how well she grasps the specific theory of relativity–and by doing so, kill off for at least this one night her dumb blond/sex goddess image, what Hollywood considers her “reality.” And she’ll turn some tables: if she can explain it to him accurately, he has to show her his legs.

This intimate late-night lecture could well be the Actress’s best performance. Radiantly, naturally, and with complete conviction, she explains how “the speed of light is always the same” and “all measurements of time and space are made relative to the observer.” (All measurements of people, too, the play insists.) When she says she knows the general theory as well, the Professor cautions her: “Knowledge without understanding is nothing.” Knowledge, he warns, is what everyone has agreed to believe, it’s not the same thing as finding the truth on your own terms.

When the Actress wants to thank the Professor, her come-on is pure Einsteinian physics: “The less you move, the faster you grow old.” But the Professor remains absorbed by his equations–and then the Ballplayer bursts in, fearful that his actress wife is two-timing him.

The Ballplayer, it turns out, is drained by living with a woman he must share with every man in America. It frustrates him that she’s hurt in a way that neither her celebrity nor his kisses can heal: “How can I make love to a wound?” He can’t understand why she’d rather ponder the universe than make him TV dinners, praise his batting averages, and provide him with a son. Desperate to save their marriage, he promises to stop enjoying being stupid, to educate himself, and to give up TV–even baseball. For the Actress, this all comes years too late.

Each human icon fears to lose the center of his or her universe, the reality that gives each significance: for the Senator it’s his power to ruin people’s lives; for the Actress, her shaky self-worth and independence; for the Ballplayer, his endangered marriage.

And the 70-year-old Professor who’s facing death wrestles with what he sees as his own lack of a moral center. The Professor believes that most Americans are chronically unable to take responsibility because they measure themselves by shallow reckonings. But the Professor forgives himself nothing, You sense that if he could take the atom bomb with him, he’d kill himself. But the curse is immortal.

Johnson’s sure and supple dialogue makes the clashes between these one-person universes achingly human. Sometimes they’re hilarious, as when the Ballplayer tries to puzzle out Einsteinian physics. At other times they’re frightening, as when the Actress tries to prevent the Senator from destroying the Professor’s papers and violence erupts.

Richard Cotovsky’s Mary-Arrchie Theatre staging embraces Johnson’s moving, thinking theater; it solidly supports these daunting dramatic gymnastics. Cotovsky employs what he calls “extrapolated realism”; from the results, I’d guess this means he departs from the public images of the famous four, speculating on how they might act under Johnson’s not-so-contrived circumstances. Whatever the process, it works: the act of speculation does not induce any false similarities; these four, necessarily distinct personalities are never blurred. The meeting of these cultural icons is accidental, but their isolation–which usually means that they hurt each other–seems as immutable as the speed of light.

The deceptive quietness of Danne Taylor’s soft-spoken, tousle-haired Professor is the show’s linchpin; his silence anchors the play’s arguments. He opens up or pulls in depending on the person he’s with, and we see how great a gulf of guilt separates him from the rest of the universe. Only on certain serendipitous occasions when he can believe that “insignificance doesn’t happen”–when Taylor’s scientist concentrates so intensely on the famous Actress unexpectedly explaining to him his own discovery–do we see him for a moment trying to unify his life in the way he has the universe. Otherwise he just stares at the Armageddon his searches have helped to create.

Shaila Zellman’s Marilyn clone never condescends to the original. A life-size, not a screen-size, Marilyn–much as she must have inescapably seen herself–Zellman’s cunning impersonation arouses our blond-bimbo expectations, then undermines them to depict a woman more concerned about probing the universe than saving a doomed marriage or even returning to shoot The Seven Year Itch.

Robert Maffia brings a gritty realism to his jealous jock. He’s especially adept at conveying the bonehead cruelty of a man who means well but thinks little. A simple lout who calls Freud “Floyd” and pops his gum annoyingly during sex, this thickheaded Ballplayer expects that living with a tormented movie star will be no different from the generic bliss he sees on Ozzie and Harriet.

James Venturini’s slimy Senator, the selfish id in this quartet, oozes a pride that prophesies his fall; his attempt to make solipsism reign is the scariest thing in the show. Better moral relativism than his ugly, destructive, and guiltless certainty.

Patrick Kerwin’s serviceable hotel room features an appropriately starry view of New York that’s so urbane and exotic it all but cries out for Gershwin accompaniment. David Cromer’s costumes, accurate for both period and celebrity, just go to show how much clothes make the icon.

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