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Einstein's Dreams

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 21, 2019

Zal Owen and Alexandra Silber
Photo by Richard Termine
Time flies. It also stands still, unravels backwards, and splits along multiple paths. Oh, and it also wears a red dress and goes by the name of Josette, in the venturesome chamber musical Einstein's Dreams, now on view at 59E59 Theaters.

The 95-minute show is based on a quirky little 1992 book with the same title, written by Alan Lightman. That book, a huge best seller, was made up of short vignettes that imagined various permutations of Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity in fanciful and non-scientific terms. It was quirky yet quite accessible, far more so than, say, Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time." One thing it wisely did not attempt, however, was to impose a romantic plot to tie everything together.

And that is both the challenge and the problem with this musicalization of Einstein's Dreams, with a book by Joanne Sydney Lessner, music by Joshua Rosenblum, and lyrics by the two of them. To begin with, if you are unfamiliar with Einstein's conceptualization of time as subject to the laws of physics, you're in for a rough ride when it comes to understanding what everyone is talking about. Perhaps a framing device in the form of, say, a brief lecture by Einstein, might prepare the audience before the show takes a deep dive into its subject area.

The bigger problem, however, is the less-than-effective attempt to cobble together a plot. The sketches in the original and also in this musical are based, as the title tells us, on a series of separate, self-contained dreams. Einstein (Zal Owen), an employee in a patent office in Bern, Switzerland, often spends the night there working on his own theoretical papers. As he falls asleep at his desk, his active brain conjures up dreams in which he attempts to understand the nature of time.

In the musical, time itself takes the form of a woman dressed all in red. She calls herself Josette (Alexandra Silber), and she appears to Einstein whenever he sleeps. It is through their interactions that he examines the malleable nature of time, both as a physical construct and as an organizing principle imposed by the human brain. It is through the show's songs that Einstein expresses his ideas about time in all its variations as he starts to put everything together into a unified scientific theory.

Musically, the show's dozen and a half tunes draw inspiration from a variety of sources. There are Viennese waltzes and ragtime numbers, while others seem influenced by Sondheim or by Weill, with a little dash of Gilbert and Sullivan patter tossed into the mix ("He showed why we wanta/Define light as quanta/I have to admit that was smart"). A standout is a lovely and touching song called "I Will Never Let You Go." It is about the possibility of time standing still, but it is one that could easily be pulled out of context and made a part of someone's cabaret act.

Under Cara Reichel's direction, the cast of eight playing multiple roles deliver the songs and move efficiently about the stage to Dax Valdes's uncomplicated choreography, accompanied by a small but effective orchestra. Projections by David Bengali add a nice surrealistic touch. But overall, the plot is both unnecessary and too thin to sustain itself. If its creators want to continue to work on it, I'd suggest styling it more along the lines of Alan Lightman's novel.

Einstein's Dreams
Through December 14, 2019
59E59 Theaters - Theater A, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current performance schedule:

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