Regional Reviews: New Jersey
The Dangers of Electric Lighting: Compelling Historical Drama
Also see Bob's review of Phaedra Backwards
Thus begins The Dangers of Electric Lighting, a new play about the rivalry between two great inventors: the vaunted Thomas Alva Edison and Serbian émigré Nikola Tesla. Rather than the musty academic exercise that one might have expected from a play about Edison, Ben Clawson's effort proves to be theatrically rich, imaginatively structured, surprisingly suspenseful, and multi-dimensional. It need only overcome an air of pedagogy in its first act to be the worthy recipient of the breakthrough success which sometimes occurs when a playwright produces a superior serious drama with wide popular appeal.
Tesla takes us back to 1884 when he arrived at the Edison Laboratory in New Jersey with a letter of introduction from Edison confidant and Edison Paris company manager Charles Batchelor. Tesla worked for Edison in New Jersey for a time, developing significant advances to Edison's dynamos. We observe the development of conflict between the two men over Edison's refusal to develop and employ direct current based upon his conviction that it was too dangerous. After parting from Edison, Tesla developed his own system for alternating current which he sold to George Westinghouse.
The play depicts events over a period of more than a decade as Edison desperately employs highly questionable tactics in his attempts to block and then reverse the victory of Tesla's superior system of alternating current. Well after the battle is clearly over, Edison is unable to accept the reality of the inability of direct current to compete with alternating current. Either his ego, his determination to protect his financial interests, or a combination of both severely clouds his judgment and moral compass.
Over the years with Edison and his associates Charles Batchelor and Harold Pitney Brown on one side, and Tesla with George Westinghouse on the other, opposing positions and arguments are bandied among them as if members of the opposing teams are in the Edison Laboratory or at other locales debating the issues, laying out their arguments face to face. It is abundantly clear that this is a theatrical device telescoping arguments and actions that are gleaned from the historical record and the imagination of the author. They are brilliantly encapsulated into an overarching text which thrillingly combines events, character and science into a riveting, seamless, and intellectually stimulating narrative. The only pedantic line in act two is one which needlessly tells us of the device's deployment. Even when founding father Benjamin Franklin appears to lend his mordant analyses to events, it seems appropriate and edifying.
Anyone who is not astute in the co-mingled histories of Edison and Tesla is likely to make some startling discoveries or rediscoveries. All can expect to be caught up in the suspense generated by certain specific events. If you can't identify Harold Pitney Brown, you are certain to be in for some solid surprises.
John Henry Davis has elicited clean, naturalistic, unfussy performances. James Glossman is a convincingly charismatic and egocentric Thomas Edison. Charming on the surface, Glossman's Edison reveals a stubborn, maddening inability to accept the possibility that he can learn anything from someone else. Jon Barker's Nikola Tesla displays a tentativeness in his professional relationships, which contrasts interestingly with his surety about his skill as an inventor-electrical engineer.
Frank Anderson briskly portrays George Westinghouse as a sharp and focused, not particularly scrupulous, powerful businessman. Anderson appropriately saves his ruffles and flourishes for his Benjamin Franklin. B. Brian Argotsinger (Harold Pitney Brown) is sufficiently odious as a salesman recklessly and, in one way, successfully stepping into waters which are too deep for him. Joseph Langham is the smooth and steady, loyal Batchelor who is powerless to dissuade Edison from his folly.
Andreea Mincic's set for the library of the Edison Laboratory effectively incorporates three-dimensional installations featuring displays of historic figures in their working surroundings.
The Dangers of Electric Lighting was commissioned by Luna Stage which is located in West Orange, the home of the Edison Laboratory. The view from here is that it is an early candidate for Best New American Play premiering in New Jersey this season.
The Dangers of Electric Lighting continues performances (Evenings: Thursday 7:30 pm; Friday, Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees: Sunday 3 pm) through November 13, 2011, at Luna Stage, 555 Valley Road, West Orange. Box Office: 973-395-5551; online: www.lunastage.org.
The Dangers of Electric Lighting by Ben Clawson; directed by John Henry Davis