Regional Reviews by Nancy Grossman

Breaking the Code

Allyn Burrows and Danny Bryck
Catalyst Collaborative@MIT, a science theater collaboration between MIT and Underground Railway Theater, presents Hugh Whitemore's Breaking the Code at Central Square Theater in Cambridge. It is a comprehensive character study of Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician, code breaker, and founder of computer science, who was awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire) for his contribution to the Allied victory over the Nazis, yet also prosecuted for gross indecency after admitting having an affair with a man.

The play is set in England and covers the years 1928 through 1954, using a combination of flashbacks to Turing's school years at Sherborne, where his mathematical skills were not appreciated and he found his first love; his work at Bletchley Park, home of the Government Code and Cypher School where he broke the German's Enigma machine codes; and his post-war groundbreaking research to develop computer technology and the concept of artificial intelligence. Throughout these scenarios, Whitemore provides insight into the makeup of Turing, the man, as he relates to his mother, employer, co-worker, male companions, and the police detective who becomes his undoing.

Allyn Burrows, Artistic Director of Actors' Shakespeare Project, makes his Underground Railway Theater debut and breathes life into the complex and conflicted Alan Turing. His portrayal captures his mild stammer, petulance, eccentricity, intelligence and passion. It's a bit of a stretch to accept him as the 17-year old Sherborne student, but the relationship between Burrows and Debra Wise as Turing's mother Sara is true to life. The URT Artistic Director and Co-Director of Catalyst Collaborative@MIT, Wise gives an emotionally intelligent performance as the woman who wishes her son was more normal, yet wholeheartedly supports him when he is in trouble.

Dafydd Rees brings a Columbo-like quality to the police detective who investigates a burglary reported by Turing, eventually getting him to admit he lied about the particulars, and causing him to out himself in exasperation. Rees transforms into Turing's Bletchley superior Dillwyn Knox by clipping on a bow tie, wrapping wire-rim glasses over his ears and assuming a slight limp. Danny Bryck also admirably plays multiple roles as Christopher Morcom (Alan's schoolboy crush), Ron Miller (the bloke he picks up in a bar) and Nikos (his Greek fling). Bryck gives Miller a dangerous seductiveness and volatility, eliciting feelings of attraction and apprehension from Burrows in their scenes together.

As Turing's co-worker at Bletchley, Liz Hayes shows Pat Green to be an intelligent, albeit bloodless mathematician. Her romantic interest in Alan is returned only as strong friendship and the look that crosses Hayes' face when she learns this shows disappointment, embarrassment and resignation in a matter of seconds. Marc Harpin appears very briefly as John Smith (no, really!), but quickly establishes that he is a menacing government operative keeping tabs on Turing.

Director Adam Zahler stages Breaking the Code in the round and Set Designer Janie E. Howland utilizes the space cleverly by designating each "corner" as a specific site. We know where a scene occurs by placement of a rolling table that serves as the detective's desk, Sara Turing's dining room, and an office at Bletchley. Franklin Meissner, Jr.'s lighting design is a crucial element to put this across. In addition, the characters who are not involved in a scene are seated amidst the audience and dimly lit to keep them connected to the story. However, the downside of the round configuration is frequently having the actors' backs in your view which results in it being difficult to hear them at times. The cast consistently affects British accents, but that adds to the challenge of catching all the lines.

The conundrum inherent in Breaking the Code is to balance the duality of Turing's intellectual life and his emotional life in order to achieve the greatest dramatic effect. Clearly, his professional accomplishments were outstanding, but the wordy explanations offered in the play's monologues often amount to speechifying. No matter how well orated by Burrows, these lengthy passages sap any liveliness created in his scenes with other characters. As important as his work was to him, it was Turing's relationships which ultimately defined his life ... and his death.

Breaking the Code, performances through May 8 at Central Square Theater; Presented by Catalyst Collaborative@MIT; Box Office 866-811-4111 or

Written by Hugh Whitemore, Directed by Adam Zahler, Set Design by Janie E. Howland, Costume Design by Frances Nelson McSherry, Lighting Design by Franklin Meissner, Jr., Sound Design & Composition by Bill Barclay, Properties Coordination by Sylvia Bagaglio, Stage Manager Dominique Burford

Cast: Danny Bryck, Allyn Burrows, Marc Harpin, Liz Hayes, Dafydd Rees, Debra Wise

Photo: A.R. Sinclair Photography

- Nancy Grossman

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