Atomic Bombers

Northlight Theatre

at North Shore Center for the

Performing Arts in Skokie

By Adam Langer

In a review a couple of weeks ago I expressed the sentiment that I would almost always rather see an ambitious but uneven mess than a well-acted, exquisitely crafted bore. If you don’t see how a production can be meticulously structured, beautifully designed, effectively acted, and still stultifying, check out Northlight’s premiere of artistic director Russell Vandenbroucke’s Atomic Bombers, a textbook example of theater that’s rife with professionalism yet almost completely devoid of drama and inspiration.

Treading ground that many–Matthew Broderick, Sam Waterston, Paul Newman, local writer Nicholas Patricca–have trodden before, Vandenbroucke takes us to the laboratories of Columbia, Princeton, and the University of Chicago and then the New Mexico desert, where scientists such as Enrico Fermi, Richard Feynman, and J. Robert Oppenheimer gave birth to the atomic bomb. Zigzagging between the physicists’ earth-shattering scientific discoveries and their ordinary domestic struggles, Vandenbroucke attempts to paint a human portrait of these men. His play may aspire to epic drama, but it’s remarkably thin, adding virtually nothing new to the historical debate.

The proceedings are hosted by the fast-talking New York boy wonder Feynman, whose reminiscences from his 1985 book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman are liberally sprinkled throughout to give us the history of the bomb as well as of his wife, Arline Greenbaum, who died young of tuberculosis. As played by the delightful Jeffrey Hutchinson, Feynman makes a witty, congenial, and energetic master of ceremonies, whose boyish enthusiasm helps us feel both the exhilaration of scientific discovery and the horror of its consequences. As he neurotically taps a tabletop and blurts out solutions to mathematical equations, his excitement over the successful harnessing of atomic energy is infectious. The moments he shares with his wife, who’s intelligently and sympathetically played by Debbi Bisno, are somewhat corny in concept but genuinely touching in execution.

Yet by clinging to Feynman’s narration as a structuring device, Vandenbroucke has turned his play into a history lesson, a science-fair pageant in which dialogue and character development are sacrificed in favor of a recitation of facts. Many of Feynman’s observations on the repercussions of science aren’t inherently dramatic and seem pedestrian and commonplace; he says, for instance, that when he was young he thought science would be helpful to people and confesses that he’d never considered the consequences of his work, that he’d developed a profound “sense of social irresponsibility.” It isn’t clear whether Feynman’s peculiar quotation of a Bob Seger lyric to emphasize a point came from his pen or Vandenbroucke’s, but either way it makes his philosophical musing seem trite. In the program Vandenbroucke writes that the play takes place in the years 1938 through 1945 but is also “encompassed by Feynman’s hindsight of the 1960s”; he also credits Feynman’s 1985 book. This suggests that the play lacks a concrete focus or perspective, and its title is almost an admission that Vandenbroucke has no desire to do more than give a history lesson.

Even worse is the way the other members of the Los Alamos team are scripted. Writers are always in some danger when they try to characterize individuals of superior intelligence, which is probably why David Mamet had so much success using characters with less-than-impressive IQs. Unable to get into the minds of the Fermis and the Oppenheimers of the world, Vandenbroucke makes them generic figures defined by easily comprehensible conflicts. Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard (played by the great but supremely wasted William J. Norris) expressed grave reservations concerning the morality of weapons of mass destruction but is reduced here to making pat objections on the order of “This will go down as a black day in history.” General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Engineering District, is all M*A*S*H military bluster. Laura Fermi is simply a litany of objections to her husband’s decisions. (“Chicago?” she complains. “Wild West! Al Capone!”). When Vandenbroucke stages the domestic squabbles of the Fermis alongside those of the Feynmans and has the male and female characters deliver the same lines in unison, he denies all four characters their depth and humanity. Even the scenes between the Feynmans, the best in the show, have a rote quality, telegraphing the end of their relationship with every cough and “Someday I’ll get better.”

Precious little of Vandenbroucke’s original dialogue rings true. When someone chastises Enrico Fermi, saying, “Enrico, you’re chairman of the tube-alloy committee! You’ve got to go attend meetings!” or portentously tells him “Professor, you’ve unlocked the door to the atomic age” the language sounds so phony and forced it almost inspires giggles. And Vandenbroucke panders to the locals by inserting in-jokes about the Northwestern sports program and the line “Chicago was no second city that winter, especially to physicists.” There are also the bad cowpoke accents of the New Mexico hillbillies gawking at the Los Alamos site, cheesy musical interludes (an Aaron Copland riff, a snatch of “I’m an Old Cowhand,” a superfluous song titled “The Los Alamos Blues”), a parade of Nobel Prize winners accepting their medals while Feynman bellows their bios, and a procession of workmen in protective gear chanting, “Soft. Slick. Black. Grease. Graphite.”

What’s amazing is that Northlight, under Alan MacVey’s astute direction, manages to pass off this oral report as ambitious drama. Sparing no expense, he’s assembled a topflight cast, about 90 percent of whom can convincingly perform the accents required of them, and a stellar design team. John Culbert’s elegant, versatile set effectively transports us from science laboratories in Chicago to the vast desert, and Nan Zabriskie’s dapper costumes make the Manhattan Project scientists suitable material for a GQ photo spread. Staged in the pristine new North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, this well-paced, confidently performed, and exquisitely designed production certainly walks the walk of effective theater. But beneath the solemn subject matter and lovely trappings is a decided absence of imagination and soul. If Oppenheimer could gaze upon the empty spectacle he might well say, “I am become boredom, shatterer of drama.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Atomic Bombers stage photo by James Fraher.