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Review: Tom Morton-Smith's drama 'Oppenheimer' dissects the conscience of the father of the atomic bomb

Review: Tom Morton-Smith's drama 'Oppenheimer' dissects the conscience of the father of the atomic bomb
James Liebman and Rachel Avery in Tom Morton-Smith's "Oppenheimer," now receiving its American premiere in a Rogue Machine production at the Electric Lodge in Venice. (John Perrin Flynn)

The most gripping moments in “Oppenheimer,” the sprawling drama by British playwright Tom Morton-Smith about the man dubbed “the father of the atomic bomb,” are the brainstorming meetings of scientists racing against their German counterparts during World War II to invent the most destructive weapon in the history of humanity.

The play, a Royal Shakespeare Company hit that is receiving its American premiere by Rogue Machine Theatre at the Electric Lodge in Venice, doesn’t need any prerequisites. Theater and history majors will find as much to chomp on as engineering students in a script that at times resembles an overstuffed course catalog. While the science isn’t exactly sexy, it’s often dramatically scintillating.

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Physics is made fascinating as characters with PhDs and awkward social graces gather to illustrate with their bodies the process of splitting the atom. These eggheads have an electric current running through them as they map out equations, their eyes agog not so much with patriotism as with math.

Standing at the center of this scientific swirl is J. Robert Oppenheimer, the reigning genius of Berkeley’s physics department and a polymath surrounded by communist sympathizers and fellow travelers. Oppenheimer (or Oppie, as he’s called by those closest to him) is broodingly complicated — a renaissance man with an idealistic streak who compels his students to read Marx and Joyce in an effort to cultivate scientists who know something about politics and art as well as the choreography of subatomic particles.

Aloof yet rarely alone, Oppenheimer seems weighed down by the burden of always being the smartest guy in the room. The play is too ambitious to settle for psychological character study. And in any case, it’s hard to get intimately acquainted with a public figure whose soul has retreated to depths he himself can no longer access.

Morton-Smith structures his drama around the crisis of conscience faced by Oppenheimer after he agrees to weaponize his scientific brilliance for the U.S. military. The play charts his journey from charismatic professor with radical inclinations, hosting a fundraiser at his Berkeley home for the Spanish Civil War relief effort, to leader of the Manhattan Project’s Los Alamos Laboratory, a position that forces him to cut ties with his communist past and inform against an old chum flirting with espionage.

Michael Redfield, from left, Daniel Shawn Miller, Rick Garrison and Brady Richards in "Oppenheimer."
Michael Redfield, from left, Daniel Shawn Miller, Rick Garrison and Brady Richards in "Oppenheimer." (John Perrin Flynn)

The production, a massively ambitious project for Rogue Machine under the direction of Artistic Director John Perrin Flynn, employs a teeming cast in a drama that aspires to Shakespearean scope. The dramatic poetry may fall short, but the storytelling moves in a contrapuntal rhythm and the shifts from prose to an audacious lyricism reveal a writer impatient with prosaic chat.

The use of projected titles at the start of scenes suggests a Brechtian influence as well. But politics are only a piece in the larger puzzle that is Oppenheimer’s character. The capacious drama perhaps most resembles a screenplay not yet cut down to ideal size by the film’s director.

For long stretches the yarn is transfixing, but there are simply too many stories, side notes and tangents packed into “Oppenheimer.” The last half-hour in this diffuse three-hour play seems collated rather than scripted. Many of the group scenes that include singing and carousing only make an already long play feel that much longer.

The character of Oppenheimer is presented in outline, but James Liebman imbues the figure with a mournful intelligence. When Oppenheimer is challenged by his brother Frank (a memorably feisty Ryan Brophy) for betraying the communist cause, it’s possible to see in Liebman’s eyes the calculations Oppenheimer is making about the fascist threat.

The super-computer of the character’s mind is continually processing facts and probabilities, but there’s a toll to all this abstraction. The disappointment of loved ones troubles him, but he’s haunted more by the destructive potential he’s unleashing on the world. We may never understand Oppenheimer. (A psychological backstory introduced late in the play doesn’t clear up any fog.) But the way his compromises silently weigh on him only confirms our sense that this independent-minded scientist-citizen was ideally cast for the agonizing job that history assigned him.

The production is least convincing in exploring Oppenheimer’s private life. Kirsten Kollender flamboyantly overplays the role of Jean Tatlock, the mentally unstable political radical who for a time romantically tortures Oppenheimer with her flightiness. Rachel Avery portrays Kitty Harrison, Oppenheimer’s iron-willed wife, in the strained 1940s movie manner in which she’s written.

Staged in an uncluttered theatrical space that allows for a quick succession of scenes, the play doesn’t always seem historically believable even when hewing faithfully to the record. The period details can seem bogus, especially Dianne K. Graebner’s costumes, which tend to wear the actors. And the boisterous party scenes have a forced gaiety.

But strong work from members of the supporting cast infuse the production with an intensity that never lets us forget just what’s at stake in this war against the Nazis. Especially effective is Ron Bottitta as General Leslie Groves, the commander of the Manhattan Project, a performance so good it almost made me forget the ludicrous wig the actor dons early on when impersonating Albert Einstein in a brief scene. Notable too are the crew of actors playing scientists (Michael Redfield, Daniel Shawn Miller, Rick Garrison and Brady Richards, among them), each of whom has to wrestle with the reality that in saving the world they may just be hastening its demise.

Unlike Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen,” a more elegant dramatic chronicle about science, Morton-Smith’s “Oppenheimer” doesn’t manage to move beyond history into philosophy. But the play demonstrates why this tale, which has been told many times before on stage and screen, never gets old. The physics is dazzling, but even more intriguing are the complicated human beings behind the equations.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

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‘Oppenheimer’

Where: Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave., Venice

When: 8 p.m. Saturdays and Mondays, 3 p.m. Sundays (check for exceptions); ends Dec 30

Tickets: $40

Information: (855) 585-5185,www.roguemachinetheatre.com

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Running time: 3 hours

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