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Strings Attached

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - September 8, 2022

Jonathan Hadley
Photo by John Quilty
Is Schrödinger's cat alive or dead? How certain are we of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle? Does God indeed play dice with the universe? And how many physicists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? These are but some of the many questions you'll be asked to ponder in playwright Carole Buggé's sometimes profound, sometimes touching, and sometimes downright silly play Strings Attached, a production of Pulse Theatre opening tonight at Theatre Row.

The notion of the "multiverse," in which infinite versions of our lives exist simultaneously in parallel worlds, has itself made a quantum leap in recent years from science fiction and fantasy books, TV shows, and films into the realm of theater. Nick Payne's Constellations, Caryl Churchill's What If If Only, and Kipp Erante Cheng's Einstein's Dreams are three examples. Of these, it is Payne's work that draws most heavily from quantum physics to give us a play that couples string theory with a deeply moving romantic tale. It also seems to have been an influence on Strings Attached, which likewise brings together scientific theories and the equally confounding nature of human relationships.

Buggé, who is best known as a writer of mystery novels and who publishes under the names of Elizabeth Blake, C. E. Lawrence, and Carole Lawrence, appears to have had a lot of fun toying with the ideas of competing theories of physics that are aimed at puzzling out the notion of subatomic particles seemingly being in two (or more) places at the same time. Fortunately for the audience, references to these theories are made perfectly understandable, at least at a basic level. And, happily, with no condescension, sometimes with the assistance of guest appearances by Marie Curie (Bonnie Black), Max Planck (Russell Saylor), and, most notably, Isaac Newton (Jonathan Hadley, a charming and witty presence).

Strings Attached begins with three physicists boarding a train. They are a married couple, June (Robyne Parrish) and George (Paul Schoeffler), and their longtime friend and colleague Rory (Brian Richardson). They are on their way from Cambridge to London to see a play with, appropriately, a physics theme, Michael Frayn's Copenhagen. "I'm surprised it's still running," says George, in a bit of meta-irony. "Who wants to see a play about physics?"

The non-science side of the play deals with the private lives of the trio, including an extramarital affair and a tragic backstory. During the intermission, science and the personal come together, and a parallel, alternative version of the story takes place during the second half. Certainly, this makes for a very clever concept, the intersection of scientific theory and human interactions. But if the play reminds us of Payne's brilliantly crafted Constellations, with, perhaps, a bit of Caryl Churchill's quirky humor thrown in, Buggé does not quite live up to these predecessors.

If you are keen on learning something about the science behind tales of parallel universes, you won't be disappointed. Paul Schoeffler as George gives us a crystal clear explanation of "Schrödinger's Cat," and Russell Saylor as Max Planck does an equally fine job illustrating his "Blackbody Experiment." For all that, however, the genial "Idiot's Guide to Physics" approach works less well when it comes to the all-too-shallow exploration of the personal lives of the three living scientists at the center of the story. To further muddy the waters, the playwright has incorporated moments of sheer goofiness, including a rendition of "Food, Glorious Food" from the musical Oliver!. Unfortunately, with the exception of the delightful Jonathan Hadley, neither the cast nor director Alexa Kelly have quite figured out how to embrace the serious, the semi-serious, and the silliness that the play has to offer.

Strings Attached
Through October 1, 2022
Pulse Theatre, Theatre Four
410 West 42nd Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: Theatre Row