The Top Ten People of the Millennium…
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 16, 2005
So Einstein, Copernicus, Galileo, and Karl Marx are in a room together...
If that sounds to you like the setup for a terrible joke, well, you're half right. Alec Duffy's extraordinary play The Top People of the Millennium Sing Their Favorite Schubert Lieder takes off from this goofy premise and elicits a great many laughs, mostly at Karl Marx's expense. But there's a great deal more going on here: Duffy has transcended the obvious comic potential of his premise to create a thoughtful, graceful, timely, and inspiring work of theatre. As dense and difficult as it is startling—Copernicus conjures an ephemeral spirit and spins out poetry, dance, and complicated mathematical formulas; and all four of our "heroes" spend a good of time singing Schubert songs in untranslated German—The Top Ten People is evocative and provocative; it gave my companion and me several hours of post-theatre discussion (and I'm still processing, and mulling over, bits of it a couple of days later). It's as rich, full, and intoxicating an experience as a theatre-lover could hope for.
So as I was saying, Einstein, Copernicus, Galileo, and Karl Marx are in a room together. What room?—I don't know: some sort of anteroom in the eternal, I imagine; a place where these four pillars of Western Civilization have gathered to find out their relative standings on Biography's Top Ten People of the Millennium List. As we first meet them, Galileo is composing a tune on a piano; Copernicus is scribbling in chalk on the floor, working out what looks like a complicated scientific theorem; Einstein is knitting; and Marx is, well, bored. He eats a pickle. He draws a smiley face on the floor in chalk. Finally, as the show proper begins, he moves to the piano and begins to sing one of his favorite Schubert lieder (Duffy is nothing if not literal about his title)—but he mispronounces some of the German words. Over and over again. Galileo, accompanying him, corrects him and then gets annoyed.
What's going on here, you're asking? Well, soon the silliness starts to coalesce into very meaningful chatter. Einstein wonders (a) what number he'll be on the top ten list, (b) whether Gandhi is also on the list, and (c) where is the wine that was promised. Galileo, a bit of a brooder, takes issue with the whole notion of the list, especially the very strong probability that all of its members will be White European Men (and he bets Einstein a thousand dollars that Gandhi won't be on it).
Copernicus continues his work, as if in a reverie, until he pauses to sing his own favorite Schubert lieder. Einstein and Marx indulge in some small talk; Marx seems to have a sort of crush on the scientist, and in between nervous helpings of a variety of snacks tries to work out a strategy for connecting with him. (Arthur Aulisi, who plays Marx, is hilarious executing a potpourri of physical comedy shtick to literalize his character's dilemma and apparent ineptitude—everything from losing his chair to smashing a jelly donut onto his chest.)
Galileo points out that apart from the lack of representation of non-white, non-male, non-European people on the list, there's also a preponderance of scientists. Where are the artists? Why are we so fixated on individuals—what about the many important achievements of groups over the past thousand years? And then he rises, to be interviewed by a public radio program that is about to premiere his musical compositions, all of which are written for non-traditional instruments (e.g., one is scored for four helicopters).
If it still seems a bit confusing, a bit surreal, a bit strange and silly—well, it is. But the diffuseness is purposeful (i.e., there's a method to Duffy's madness). Galileo's musings inspire us to consider... lots of things. Why does music have to be written for traditional instruments, to mention one obvious example. Why do we value science over art? Why do we value politics and economics at all? What does a list like this one tell us about our society and ourselves?
Why do we make lists?
Galileo and Einstein hash out quantum theory. When we make a list like this, are we somehow altering the thousand years of civilization we're aiming to measure with it?
Why are Schubert lieder the one and only thing that all four of our cultural heroes seem able to appreciate and enjoy together?
The Top Ten People is awesomely generous with its wit and its insight, and although I know I didn't understand everything in it, I can't remember when I've gotten so much intellectual nourishment from a 90-minute play. Plus, it's funny—Aulisi, as I've mentioned, is terrific as the clumsy Karl Marx; Amy Laird Webb is just as entertaining as an understated Einstein and Eugene Rohrer is superb as a bemused but curmudgeonly Galileo. It's beautiful, too: Barnarby Carpenter (Copernicus) and David Schreiner (The Shadow; Copernicus's doppelganger from the spirit world) execute stunning singing and movement in several sequences that serve to remind us of the glory of music and ballet and the power of abstract image and sound.
The real-life top ten list is slipped in slyly, validating Duffy's thesis. I remember when A&E announced it five years ago, it seemed to make sense. Now I'm not so sure. Which is exactly why The Top Ten People is so valuable and so compelling. It's a show to test your assumptions about everything, including off-the-wall fringe-y theatre with deliberately silly, long titles. Go see it.