Dreamingful Productions and Graymatter Entertainment’s “Atomic”, book and lyrics by Danny Ginges and Gregory Bonsignore, directed by Damien Gray was a very fascinating look at some of the key physicists and inventors of the Manhattan Project. Refreshingly, “Atomic” was not a political stab against the creation of the atomic bomb but a very historical look into “the idea that shook the world.”
The musical began with a man and woman traditionally seated in the Japanese fashion across from each other conversing. The lack of foreign language translation was a more dramatic undertone for the upcoming sound of an atomic bomb paired with flashes of light behind nearby sliding doors. This was a unique opening to J. Robert Oppenheimer’s (Euan Morton) seated figure protesting the interrogation of a Congressional Committee for what is presumed as war crimes. Euan Morton depicted Mr. Oppenheimer as a sarcastic jokester. Morton was met with many laughs and an entertaining Oppenheimer came to life as the narrator of the creation of the atomic bomb.
Oppenheimer introduced the main scientist in the atom bomb’s creation: Leo Szilard (Jeremy Kushnier). Szilard, a Hungarian physicist and inventor (conceived the nuclear chain reaction, nuclear reactor and the electron microscope) was depicted as a passionate scientist by Kushnier. An all-work and no-play personality came through in Kushnier’s performance. However, while Kushnier began with a great and believable Hungarian accent that even carried through to his music—about halfway through the play he lost it. The accent gave him a foreign flare that deepened his character’s non-American presence. It is a shame that he could not maintain it.
Szilard’s wife, Trude Weiss Szilard (Sara Gettelfinger) was a physicist turned medical doctor whose only true love was her husband. Gettelfinger’s rendition of a brilliant wife who simply misses her more passionate about his work husband was very relatable. Mrs. Szilard plays off of Leo to aid him through is struggles of deciding to defy Lord Rutherford’s theory that the atom cannot be split, his fight to return to the Manhattan Project after being fired and his decision to begin a petition to the President not to drop the atomic bomb. She comfortably presented Leo with a moral compass that he returned to. Both Gettelfinger and Kushnier had good chemistry together and it was not a stretch that a marriage such as theirs would survive husband and wife rarely seeing one another.
A colleague of Szilard’s was Edward Teller (“the father of the hydrogen bomb”), played by Randy Harrison. Harrison brought Teller’s character to life as a proverbial scientist that doesn’t know what to do with the ladies. His few funny lines about Leona Woods’ brilliance and the minds of other physicists on the project possibly giving him a complex was entertaining. As Teller, Harrison had great chemistry with the cast and his Hungarian accent made for more laughter and reprise from the heavy subject of the atomic bomb.
An equally well known physicist, Enrico Fermi was hilariously played by Jonathan Hammond. This Italian-American physicist (awarded Nobel Prize in Physics in 1938 and worked on Chicago Pile-1 first ever nuclear reactor) was presented as a scientist/playboy with a possibly unhealthy obsession with bedding each woman aside from his wife; whom he describes as your oldest set of woolen pajamas that at night you wonder why you’ve kept all these years. His accent reigned true throughout his performance and he never lost his distinctly Italian flare and flamboyant suits. Each time Hammond entered the stage the audience was ready for a good laugh.
The liaison of the Manhattan Project to General Groves was the American physicist (awarded Nobel Prize in Physics in 1927, discovery of the Compton Effect) Arthur Compton (David Abeles). Abeles seemed awkward at times and it was almost as if he was unsure what to do with his arms. This may have been an artistic flare to show the awkward nature of a physicist but if it was it fell a bit short. His booming voice created a stage presence for him, however, it would have been much more dynamic if he gave his character a more confident posture.
Working closely with Arthur Compton and much to Fermi’s disbelief is the non-secretary but brilliant physicist (famous for utilizing Geiger counters in testing Chicago Pile-1 and solving problem of xenon poisoning in Hanford plutonium) Leona Woods (Alexis Fishman). Leona has a few funny lines and represents the very rare woman in a man’s profession. Holding her own with the men, Fishman portrays Leona as a somewhat sarcastic and down-to-earth physicist. Her Midwestern accent also carried on throughout the performance and she was able to distinctly change her character’s likeness whenever she played an ensemble member.
Harrison’s depiction of Paul Tibbets seemed a very accurate rendition of a recruit turned Colonel (retired as a Brigadier General) who eventually dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima from the Enola Gay. With a very entertaining song illustrating his “f*ck em’” attitude, Tibbets’ decision to drop the bomb on “numbers” rather than people was very believable.
Mae (Grace Stockdale) and Fritz (James David Larson) seamlessly integrated themselves with the cast as secretaries and “no-name” scientists. Stockdale and Larson also participated in the ensemble and maintained strong stage presence throughout the performance.
Scenic designer Neil Patel and lighting designer David Finn worked very well together and gave the cast artistic props and dynamic lighting for their performance. However, Philip Foxman’s music and lyrics fell short of expectations as each musical number began to sound like the last. In addition, sound designer Jon Weston did not take into account the small size of The Acorn Theater. Most of Foxman’s lyrics were drowned out by his music.
The inventor’s regret and inner turmoil regarding their decision to back the dropping of the atomic bomb on innocent lives was also very well done. The only complete mishap of the play was the actual dropping of the bomb. Strangely, Szilard came on stage and in a slow motion fight with stop-light strobes to oddly step on and hit the two beginning Japanese characters for an uncomfortable period of time. The audience giggled at Kushnier’s frozen and slow-motion faces. There are much more dramatic approaches to illustrating a bomb that killed hundreds of thousands within a minute.
This non-political performance presented the debate on whether or not to drop the bomb in a very objective light. The audience was even reminded of America’s “C Plan” to drop the bomb on an uninhabited city to demonstrate the power of the United States rather than killing innocent lives. Oppenheimer’s vehement rejection of this option as the bomb had the possibility of not detonating was very accurate. Conversely, it was not a stretch to think that Leo Szilard would not only contract cancer from his work with radiation but would be sickened by the sheer power of the bomb he helped create.
In closing, if you have a healthy respect for history and a free two hours and fifteen minutes on a Sunday take some time to see “Atomic.” You’ll certainly have a few laughs and walk away knowing just a little bit more about the scientists that changed the world forever.“Atomic” is playing at Theater Row’s The Acorn Theater Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 7pm, Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and 8pm and Sunday at 3pm and 7pm from Saturday July 12th to Sunday July 20th.
Review By: Alex Lipari
Photo By: Carol Rosegg