What’s the best way to build a bomb? Convince your team of highly intelligent scientists that they’re merely working out preliminary equations, of course. Set during the Reagan administration, John Mighton’s Scientific Americans deals with the pressures of compromising one’s moral integrity in the face of promised national advancement, and the costly effects of either result. While the events ultimately concern the invention of the stealth bomber, the play itself focuses more on the humanistic and emotional consequences of furthering the technology of war.
The plot concerns Jim Evans, a young physicist hired by the Department of Defense who begins to believe that his life finally might be working out. As he and his fiancée Carol, a brilliant computer scientist in her own right, are settling into their new life in New Mexico, the odd passing comments from neighbors and co-workers about “getting out now” and protesters eager to prevent Jim from entering his office launch Carol’s suspicions about the sort of work Jim may be consciously or unconsciously contributing to.
Providing a nice frame for the story is Bill the psychologist, a former NBC employee who dealt mainly with soap operas and now analyzes DOD staffers. This device could have easily veered in a patronizing or cheap gimmick direction, but instead Bill (David Mauer) persuades the audience into imagining themselves in similar moral dilemmas. Effective and thought-provoking, although slightly cloaked in stereotype (as are the other supporting characters of this play), the meat-head army general (Bret Haines), the quivering science nerd (Eric Lesh), the home-bound mother (Melissa Faye Nocera), and the jaded, cocktail-swigging wife (Lauren Spees)all make appearances mainly to momentarily snatch the audience away from the harsh reality of Jim and Carol.
The technical aspects of Scientific Americans are limited, remaining unobtrusive in order to give the dialogue full attention. A slightly off-putting aspect is the canned and crackly sound design — I personally think pre-recorded dial tones and the like could have been sacrificed to ensure the audience’s attention remains rapt.
Why Michael Stock is not headlining Broadway plays by now is a mystery to me. His interpretation of Jim Evans is natural, relatable, multi-faceted, and riveting, culminating in the creation of a believable, three-dimensional person outfitted with honest fears and ambitions. He is at ease throughout the entire play, and his chemistry with co-star Julie Baber is palpable and intense. Only the beginning of his character falters, appearing to be more the fault of a questionable opening direction from Meghan Finn; the clipped, closed-off, muddled son in no way resembles the affable and sometimes frustrated man we enjoy for the rest of the show. I would more likely place the blame for this unevenness within the pages of the script than with Stock.
As was mentioned before, Julie Baber as Jim’s fiancée Carol, matches Stock inch for inch in her performance. Some of the plays best moments arise when Jim and Carol debate the implications of their work and its toll on their relationship. An intriguing mix of sweet ingénue and sharp citizen, Ms. Baber plays Carol as a woman with as many doubts as she has dreams, able to deliver biting moments of truth to not only Jim but the audience, too.
Although Scientific Americans’ foreboding weapons realizations might not exactly mirror the current war-time situation, the question of a citizen’s duty versus core beliefs still echoes loudly. And while this show does possess some rather stunning instances of clarity, there are times when it swerves off-course and into cookie-cutter territory.