The Physicists, A Red Orchid Theatre. Like his contemporary Max Frisch, Friedrich Durrenmatt possessed the love of geometry and profound fear for mankind possible only in one well acquainted with scientific laws. Though Tom Stoppard has explored mathematics more inventively in Travesties and Arcadia, a chilling apocalyptic undercurrent flows through this absurdist tragedy, set in an asylum where three brilliant but murderous physicists reside, claiming to be Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and King Solomon.
Rife with cold war paranoia, Durrenmatt’s careful play advances his oft-stated theory that expanding scientific knowledge is dangerous, and that future scientists will have themselves committed lest their theories be used in the deadly ways Newton’s and Einstein’s have been. The play is structured to demonstrate the inevitable destructive cycle scientists have set in motion, as the physicists, despite their isolation, remain unable to protect the world from their knowledge.
Durrenmatt creates a convincing if somewhat preachy Luddite argument, and in this worthy revival director Guy Van Swearingen and his 16 actors, ranging from competent to sublime, effectively mine his script for both its philosophical and comic riches. Most engaging is Marilyn Dodds Frank’s hilarious, twisted performance as Doktor Mathilde Von Zahnd, whose evolution from exacting psychiatrist to power-crazed lunatic sums up Durrenmatt’s grim fatalism: “Things have only been completely thought through when they take their worst possible turn.”