The thing about both science and comedy is that they are precise crafts, with even the slightest miscalculation throwing the whole experiment out of whack. This isn’t to say that Break a Leg’s New York premiere of Pierre and Marie is a disastrous explosion, but it also isn’t quite up to an A+ in chemistry either.
I can’t completely dismiss the feeling that the true saga of Pierre Curie and Marie Sklodowska’s romance and their discovery of the elements uranium and radium wasn’t quite this jocular. At times, this adaption of Jean-Noel Fenwick’s Les Palmes de M. Schultz by Ron Clark feels like a Tuesday night sitcom, desperately hoping we fall for the cheap gags and bizarre situations. However, this is still a play about science, and the imbalance arrives when the pacing suddenly dives from high hilarity to stringent scientific explanations. Yes, Pierre and Marie may be falling in love amid a cast of colorful French co-workers and neighbors, but they are still uncovering the minute mysteries of radioactivity, and this production is still searching for a cohesive way to tie the two together.
With few exceptions, the cast takes the uneven storyline in stride. John Quilty is allowed to flex both his nerdy and comic skills as Pierre Curie, a nebbish man who denounces women in favor of remaining focused on the progression of science. The effect Marie’s arrival has on him is subtle, but the more she is around him, the more he loosens up and gains confidence. Mr. Quilty’s awkward demeanor is played to the hilt in one especially memorable scene involving vodka and goulash (don’t worry, I wouldn’t spoil something like that for you.)
As Marie, Martha Lopez Gilpin is like an overexcited child. Her gift for manipulation and general bossiness, combined with her quick, jumpy movements, contributes to the “after school science special” feel the show sometimes develops. Marie is obviously in charge, and sometimes it might as well be Lucy ordering Charlie Brown and Linus around instead of groundbreaking scientists at work. And oddly enough she is the only character – a Polish student studying in France – who possesses an accent, which adds dimension but seems out of place when surrounded by American twangs.
Hapless as he is, Pierre’s colleague Bemont (Michael Edmund) serves well as comic relief, constantly putting himself in the path of trouble and actively seeking out distractions from his work. Funny as it sounds, he is reminiscent of the boy who leads Pinnochio astray into the land of hedonism, happy-go-lucky and careless as he pursues his own interests. On the other end, Teri Black as meddling neighbor Georgette could not look more unfocused on stage. Actual eye contact with any of the other characters would have done wonders for her delivery, and even when she provides essential assistant in the Curie’s work, she appears distracted and eager to leave the stage.
A true pleasure to watch is Michael Gilpin, who is bombastic, booming, and ground-shaking with his entrances as Pierre and Marie’s superior, Chevrier. Mr. Gilpin’s command of the stage while he struts around it is a riot, as are his overly dramatic demands on the Curies.
While Alan Baron’s set design provides us with the requisite colored glass bottles and cluttered, assorted baubles, most elements are so distractingly modern that it’s difficult to remember that we are in a nineteenth century university, not a contemporary academy of scientific study. Overall, the visual is as unbalanced as the rest of the production, an unsure mixture of effort and substitution.
Art and science do contain similarities, specifically that both require passion to pursue them wholeheartedly. The problem with this split is that in Pierre and Marie, the level of passion sustained throughout the show is nothing when compared to the passion released when theories of chemistry are being explained by the characters. Most of the time this show feels like either a glorified science lecture (admitted I did come out with a better understanding of how radioactivity works) or a tepid soap opera. Rarely does it venture into the territory of a fully engaging show, and for that I suggest finding a tutor.
Break A Leg Productions