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CHAIN REACTION

nytheatre.com review by Brian Gillespie
August 15, 2012

During World War II, the top secret Manhattan Project brought many of the world’s top scientific minds together to create the atomic bomb.  Chain Reaction, the new play written by Jonathan Alexandratos and directed by Chrysta Naron, follows several of the key figures involved in the bomb’s creation though its development, deployment and the aftermath of its use.

The play centers around J. Robert Oppenheimer, the lead scientist at Los Alamos (played with affable inscrutability by Paul Corning, Jr.)  and his work on the development of the bomb with fellow scientists Edward Teller (James Nugent) and Neils Bohr (Michael Selkirk), as well as General Leslie Groves (Dustye Winniford), the military director of the Manhattan Project. Over the course of dozens of scenes we follow these and other characters through the war years of the 1940s and beyond, but the scenes are often so short that characters never get the chance to have much real development.  As a result, the play often feels like a series of snapshots or vignettes without a particular arc, showing the chronology of occurrences. Given the familiarity of these historical figures and events, the purpose or intention behind the piece is unclear. What was the particular reason to retell this story on the stage?

Was the new insight to find humor in the history? That would be a new take on this subject matter, and the play is in fact billed as a comedy, but I don’t think they quite hit the mark.  It feels as if one-liners or bits of business were grafted into scenes for the sake of trying to make them comedic.  As the play progresses, the comedy is all but abandoned and much of the second half of the play comes across as serious drama. And the sections with Oppenheimer and his mistress Jean Tatlock (played by Sandy Oppedisano) often veer into the territory of melodrama. The two jokey ‘government agents’ that reappear several times (played by Gregory Kostal and Mary Catherine Wilson) are clearly intended as comic relief, but most of their material falls flat. 

Blackouts and full scene shifts after each scene also cut into the play’s momentum.  Stage hands move furniture pieces completely on and off the stage in silence after each of the 30 or so scenes. That time really adds up and such long and frequent interruptions affected the flow of the piece for me.

The ensemble of actors does good work with the material at hand.  I particularly enjoyed Gary G. Howell as Neils Bohr’s son, Aage. He and Mr. Selkirk as the elder Bohr shared some nice moments, particularly in a touching scene late in the play in which the ailing Neils tells his son how proud he is of him.

Overall though, with the staccato nature of the play’s short scenes and long scene changes combined with a not quite clearly defined sense of why this story is being told, Chain Reaction never quite reaches critical mass.