QED a new play by Peter Parnell, inspired by the writings of Richard Feynman and Ralph Leighton's Tuva or Bust! Directed by Gordon Davidson. Set design by Ralph Funicello. Costume design by Marianna Elliott. Lighting design by D. Martyn Bookwalter. Sound design by Jon Gottlieb. Cast: Alan Alda and Kellie Overbey.
Most people go to a physics lecture knowing they won't understand anything, or so says Richard Feynman, the renowned physicist, professor, Nobel Prize recipient, and subject of QED, Peter Farnell's new play which opened last night at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. Rest assured to enjoy the play little knowledge of physics is required. However, penetrating the play may be a task as daunting as a college final you haven't studied for.
Luckily, your major asset in this production is the professor. As portrayed by Alan Alda, Feynman seems friendly and approachable as you'd want a professor to be. Alda's everyman demeanor is perfectly suited to this play; he is capable of winning over the audience immediately and guiding them, with a gentle hand, through what might otherwise be impossibly difficult subject matter. It is, however, always Feynman onstage. Alda has no problem vanishing into the character of Feynman here, with his manic mannerisms and strong adaption to the "stream of conciousness" style of Parnell's script.
Since Feynman is only offstage for a few seconds of the play's two hour running time, by the end of the performance, you come to appreciate Alda all the more. One other character does appear onstage, that of Feynman's student Miriam (Kellie Overbey), but this is clearly Feynman and Alda's show.
The show's significant problem is its lack of focus. Parnell is so determined to show us every side of Feynman that he doesn't give any of them the due they deserve. During the course of the play, Feynman is doing all of the following: Preparing to give a speech on the topic "What We Know," getting ready to greet a group of Russians, practicing to appear later that evening in South Pacific, fighting a difficult battle with a particularly nasty form of cancer, advising Miriam about her schoolwork and career, and explaining all of this (as well as his theories and understandings of Quantum Electrodynamics, the QED of the play's title) to the audience. Whenever you think you know everything that he is dealing with, something else inevitably pops up.
An overlapping of plot points such as these most certainly doesn't have to be a detriment, but Parnell's work here simply doesn't succeed at tying everything together. Most of the time, it seems, Parnell doesn't even try; he'll have Feynman reminisce about his role in the creation of the first atomic bomb then discuss the details of the radical cancer therapy he's considering undertaking. It is difficult to believe that the two topics must be mutually exclusive, but in QED, very few issues are allowed to impress on any of the others. Parnell makes sure that neither Feynman nor the audience get to think and feel at the same time, and relegates QED to a mostly hollow, unfulfilling experience.
This may be due in part to the director, Gordon Davidson, who does little to energize the script or provide real excitement. His work throughout is adequate, but little more; only near the end of the second act when Feynman is playing the drums for Miriam and they're both dancing around his office (the set is by Ralph Funicello) does the show draw you in. But even then, it's a bittersweet moment. This scene, which comprises the bulk of the second half of the act, is the first time Feynman has actually interacted with Miriam, but she seems mostly superfluous. There are times it's not clear whether Feynman knows (or cares) that she's there.
According to the Playbill, the script was "inspired by the writings of Richard Feynman," but Feynman - as demonstrated in a muted way in QED - was a dynamic, inspiring professor and physicist. That seldom comes across with Parnell's script and Davidson's diection; Alda gives it his all (and then some) the entire time, but it simply isn't enough. Parnell's script seems most energized when he has Feynman discussing physics, but the time between the physics "lectures" is long, and without the proper balance, the play goes off-kilter far too easily.
It is very difficult to avoid comparing this play with two others dealing with similar subject matter, Proof and Copenhagen. Stacked against them, QED doesn't measure up; it lacks the brains of latter and the heart of the former (with the exception of Alda, who has heart and dedication to spare). This is disappointing, because who would think a play that touches on issues like the Challenger disaster and the building blocks of the universe would be unexciting emotionally and intellectually?
But such is this play. QED may never bore, but it also never inspires.