Richard Feynman was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist for his work in Quantum Electrodynamics. He was part of the Manhattan Project, where he helped to create the first atomic bomb. He was invited to join the investigation into the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, where he demonstrated, on national television, how the shuttle O-ring gaskets were prone to fail at low temperatures.
QED, the new play at the Mark Taper Forum, is virtually a one-man show about Richard Feynman. It takes place in the late 1980s, after Feynman had been diagnosed with the cancer that would eventually take his life. At this time, Feynman was a professor at Caltech. The play takes place in his office, on a Saturday morning, when he is preparing to give a lecture on the topic, "What We Know." The show is, for the most part, simply Feynman's stream of consciousness as he prepares the lecture, answers phone calls, and readies himself for a walk-on role in a university production of South Pacific. He tells us stories of his past, leaping from anecdote to anecdote, with very little reason to move from one to another.
We learn that Feynman was passionate about knowledge. We are shown how his desire to solve problems manifested itself in an amateur lockpicking practice; how an offhand remark about Tuva, a tiny country wedged between Siberia and Mongolia, led to a wondrous plan to visit it; and how his groundbreaking work in Quantum Electrodynamics came about because of his curiosity about the wobble of a flying plate. And we also learn that Feynman had other passions, such as drumming, art, and women. As an attempt to get us into Feynman's head, to learn what excites a genius, and to make him seem more like a regular guy, QED is successful.
But it is a portrait painted with too loving a hand. A one-man show should give us some insight into the faults and foibles of its subject. A character telling stories at the end of his life is in a position to do more than simply tell stories; he can point out his mistakes and regrets. With the benefit of hindsight, the character can analyze and evaluate. And the Feynman of QED does none of this.
QED does touch on four topics, any of which would be a legitimate basis for serious evaluation on the part of Feynman: his work on the atomic bomb; the Challenger explosion; the death of Feynman's first wife; and Feynman's own mortality. Yet each topic is treated superficially, and Feynman comes out of each discussion smelling like a rose: the bomb was a life-changing experience; NASA should not sweep Challenger under a rug; Feynman was deeply, terribly moved by the death of his wife; Feynman's love for life and his scientific curiosity will help him cope with cancer. There are hard questions here, but QED provides only easy answers. The result is a pleasant, but not too challenging, evening at the theatre.
The role of Feynman as raconteur is easy for Alan Alda to play; the smart likeable womanizer is not uncharted territory for him. But one is left with the feeling that there is much more to Feynman than Alda was allowed to play. For all the enjoyable stories of QED, one leaves the theatre knowing little more about the man than what is written in the program notes.
Center Theatre Group/The Music Center of Los Angeles County Mark Taper Forum; Gordon Davidson, Artistic Director; Charles Dillingham, Managing Director; Robert Egan, Producing Director presents QED by Peter Parnell. Inspired by the writings of Richard Feynman and Ralph Leighton's Tuva or Bust! Directed by Gordon Davidson. Creative consultant Ralph Leighton; set designed by Ralph Funicello; costumes designed by Marianna Elliott; lighting designed by D Martyn Bookwalter; sound designed by Jon Gottlieb; movement by Donald McKayle; drumming consultant Tom Rutishauser; casting by Amy Lieberman; associate producer Susan Obrow; production stage manager Mary K Linger; stage manager Robin Veith.
Richard Feynman - Alan Alda
Playing at the Mark Taper Forum through May 13, 2001.