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Radiance —The Passion of Marie Curie

Also see Sharon's review of Bring It On - The Musical

Radiance —The Passion of Marie Curie is somewhat misleadingly titled. Or, at least, misleading subtitled. Because it makes you think you're going to get a play about Marie Curie's passion for science, and her single-minded drive to isolate radium. And Alan Alda's play, getting its world premiere at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, is only slightly about the science. The passion that is the real subject of the play is Marie's rather more worldly passion for her husband and, after his death, someone else's husband.

Yes, the play is about Marie Curie; yes, radium plays a part; yes, there are a few mentions of her Nobel prizes and the scientific community's reluctance to even acknowledge that a woman could have something to contribute to scientific discovery. But the play's focus doesn't really need Marie Curie at all—it is the story of an intelligent woman who has an affair with a man married to a woman who is not her intellectual equal. The wife would be fine if her husband had an affair with someone lesser, like a shopgirl—after all, this is France. But her husband is sleeping with someone with whom he shares an intellectual connection that he could never share with his wife, and that is wholly unacceptable.

Even here, the problem with the play is that it puts in the text what should be in the subtext. The best scenes are those where we see Marie and her future lover, Paul, discussing math or science, and Jeanne, his wife, is left out or, worse, talked down to. In such scenes, we see that Jeanne has no chance of stimulating her husband's mind. But in others, where Jeanne complains of being left out, or how she wishes Paul would stop wasting his time in intellectual pursuits, Alda's play is simply telling us what it should be showing us.

When the play does show, rather than tell, it is impressive. The staging (by Daniel Sullivan) has all of the actors onstage at all times, watching the action and stepping in to join it when necessary. This creates some wonderful silences—when Marie thinks back to her dead husband, she catches the eye of the actor playing Pierre (John de Lancie). He's present, but not present, a ghost or a memory that still has significance. Technical credits are also exceptional, with projected video setting the scenes (a moving train, a rainstorm) without upstaging the actors.

The cast is solid, but with little outstanding work. Anna Gunn's Marie speaks with a heavy accent (although she lived in France, Marie was Polish), which testifies to her otherness. Indeed, with her scientific pursuits as well as her refusal to live by the accepted moral code, this Marie is the very personification of an outsider—but an outsider who stubbornly refuses to accept that the world is not the way she wants it, and who continues to push headstrong toward her goals. De Lancie's Pierre is loving and supportive; he matches Marie's drive with his own. Dan Donohue's Paul loves Marie from afar during her marriage; we see how much he longs to be with someone of her mental caliber, and we can't possibly miss his reaction when circumstances require Marie to clean a small wound on his head. Sarah Zimmerman has an impossible task with the role of Jeanne—she is clearly the antagonist of the piece, even though it is her husband who is being unfaithful. I found it hard to hate her; the script has Paul tell Marie (and us) that Jeanne is violent and insane, but without actually seeing Jeanne and Paul alone, it's hard to know if that's just Paul's biased view of their marriage. Certainly, having seen Paul humiliate Jeanne in public, I'm willing to consider the fact that he might be part of the problem. But since the play is about Marie Curie—rather than simply being a period drama about infidelity—we're never given a chance to see things from Jeanne's point of view.

I concede that my disappointed expectations about this play colored my opinion of it. I anticipated a play where the language of science was itself sexy; where intellectual passion is as strong as physical; and where the protagonist's passion for discovering an unknown fact about the world in which we live made her desirable to men who understood and shared that passion. Instead, the closest I got was a cutesy flirtation scene where talking about the attractions of magnetism stood in as a fairly obvious (and not particularly witty) substitute for a couple's own mutual attraction. The program notes make it clear that Alda himself was inspired by Marie Curie—her drive, her passion, and her living outside the rules. But this play does not adequately convey Alda's own enthusiasm, or leave us similarly inspired.

Radiance —The Passion of Marie Curie continues at the Geffen Playhouse through December 18, 2011. For tickets and information, see

Geffen Playhouse —Gilbert Cats, Producing Director; Randall Arney, Artistic Director; Ken Novice, Managing Director —presents Radiance – The Passion of Marie Curie. Written by Alan Alda. Scenic Designer Thomas Lynch; Costume Designer Rita Ryack; Lighting Designer Daniel Ionazzi; Sound Designer Jon Gottlieb; Projection Designer John Boesche; Associate Director John Sullivan; Production Stage Manager Young Ji; Casting Director Phyllis Schuringa. Directed by Daniel Sullivan.

Marie Curie —Anna Gunn
Paul Langevin —Dan Donohue
Pierre Curie —John de Lancie
Émile Borel —Hugo Armstrong
Marguerite Borel —Natacha Roi
Jeanne Langevin —Sarah Zimmerman
Törnebladh/Terbougie —Leonard Kelly-Young

- Sharon Perlmutter

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