Historically, scientists have not had the best reputation for being well-adjusted. In books and movies, they are generally depicted as eccentric recluses with pale skin and crazy, bespectacled eyes. They spend most of their time in laboratory dungeons, or so we’re told, conducting experiments with strange substances whose names no one can pronounce. As kids, we watched cartoons like “Pinky and the Brain” and “Dexter’s Laboratory” with a detached fascination — those genius scientists were interesting, but we could not imagine adopting their lifestyles for ourselves.
In “The Physicists,” showing tonight at the Saybrook Underbrook, three renowned physicists housed in an insane asylum add a new dimension to the age-old notion of a “mad scientist.”
The central characters — “Newton” (Alec Joyner ’14), “Einstein” (Maxwell Ramage ’14) and Mobius (Sesenu Woldemariam ’14) — are patients in a “sanatorium” run by the high-strung Doktor von Frahnd (Harriet Weaver ’13) and her team of nurses, composed of a Judo champion and a noted woman wrestler. Between them, the scientists have murdered three nurses in three years, whilst insisting that they are not mad and that they are truly the renowned academics they claim to be. Einstein plays the fiddle and says that he is Albert Einstein. Newton wears a large white wig and claims to be masquerading as Sir Isaac Newton to conceal his true identity as Albert Einstein. Mobius believes that King Solomon’s spirit has entered his body and is responsible for his miraculous scientific discoveries.
This cast of characters makes for a powerful, farcical trio. However, sometimes the humour falls flat and the chemistry dies away. For instance, when Newton’s character speaks didactically in his slight British accent, there is a missed beat before anyone responds. Statements such as “[Engineers] treat electricity as a pimp treats a whore” attempt to be both funny and striking, but instead stagnate and confuse the otherwise flowing dialogue. Likewise, Einstein’s character is a nervous, fumbling man whose words seem incongruous with his frail physical presence. When he stutters, “In all the world there is nothing more disgusting than a woman’s frantic desire for self-sacrifice,” we don’t know whether to laugh or be offended.
The true value of the play lies in its weaving of a philosophical debate into the comical elements of the madhouse. In the show’s climactic scene, it is revealed that Mobius is a true genius who is simply remaining within the institution to protect his groundbreaking discoveries from falling into the wrong hands.
“Our knowledge has become a terrible burden,” Mobius says to the other two scientists. “Only in the madhouse can we remain free! Only in the madhouse can we think our own thoughts! Outside, there is dynamite.”
The play skillfully leads the audience through a psychological journey that questions what it means to be mad. Each turn of the plot creates more uncertainty surrounding the scientists’ sanity, and at times it appears that the other characters are more mentally unstable than the patients themselves. The police inspector, Richard Voss (Patrick Cage ’14), is prone to sudden angry outbursts, for instance, and Doktor von Frahnd’s nervous twitches hint at her own psychosis.
Beyond this psychological quandary lies an ethical one. “The Physicists” asks whether a scientist’s duty is to unleash all known wisdom to the world or to keep it secret, lest someone with bad intentions use their intelligence to perform evil deeds. Written in the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks, the play also sends a pertinent message to present generations who reside in a world that can be destroyed with the flipping of a few switches.
“Let us be madmen once again,” Newton says. “Let us be mad but wise.”
“Prisoners, but free,” says Einstein.
“Physicists, but innocent,” follows Mobius.
Despite some moments where characters’ movements are poorly orchestrated, “The Physicists” is both entertaining and enlightening. It is filled with plot twists and unexpected moments of insight that reveal depth beneath its comical veneer. With the scientists’ decision to remain in the asylum, we are warned that sometimes knowledge is best kept locked away