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by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

"QED" Alan Alda in a one man show.
The Vivian Beaumont Theater
The Lincoln Center For the Performing Arts
(212) 362-7000
Reviewed March 18, 2002 by Margaret Croyden

"QED" is abut the last years of the maverick physicist Richard Feynman--Nobel Prize winner, well respected scientist, atom bomb worker, and the writer of a popular explanation of quantum electrodynamics; hence "QED." Feynman was a colorful character and Alan Alda is the actor, in what is essentially a one-man show, who must capture the varying characteristics and multiple interests of this original thinker. And do it alone on the stage for two hours. (there is a bit part by Kellie Overbey as his student).

According to all reports, Feynman was a dynamic personality, and not only was he brilliant in his work but his interests were wide; he played the drums, acted in amateur productions, traveled to remote parts of the world, was devoted to science and scientific thinking, and was an unaffected down to earth personality who, as they say, was larger than life. To be sure, he was a truly fascinating character to write about, and Peter Parnell, the author tried to capture his extraordinary last years in two acts--an admirable goal; he and the director Gordon Davidson did succeed in getting something original on the stage. And for that they should be commended.

Alan Alda has a most pleasant personality and it is difficult to fault him for anything; he is so well known and liked. But unfortunately his personality works against him as he tries to capture the essence of the scientist. To be sure, Richard Feynman was Jewish, but Alda exaggerated gestures and body language are stereotypical of those who think all Jews speak only with their hands. Feynman did come from a working class family, lived as a youth in Far Rockaway, but worked himself up to do graduate work at Princeton, and became a world class scientist. At the same time, he was probably unpretentious and down to earth. But the man must have had an extraordinary dynamic, and vibrant personality and a fascinating brain. It is all there in the script--his humor, his wisdom, his varying pursuits, his logical mind, and most important, his love of science. And scientific thinking.

Unfortunately Alan Alda is not the man to depict this very complicated personality. The actor who plays this role must have enormous energy and theatrical charisma; he must be able to dominate the stage and convince us that he is a man of intellect, a man with a huge education, and a man with a thrilling capacity to enjoy drumming, acting, traveling and talking. And a man who had the talent to make a vital, if not exceptional contribution to physics. Feynman was an intellectual giant. And that is what we must see on the stage.

Alda is too simplistic, too earth bound, too New Yorkese. His voice is one tone, rather whining and monotonous; he has no range; he is pleasant, enthusiastic, funny sometimes and warm; but essentially, he is does not convince us that he is a world class scientist, a man with a huge intellect and a huge appetite for life. Though the scientist in real life may have come across as a simple guy, acting him demands a large and distinctive theatrical presence. He must convince you that he is, in fact, the dynamic person that the script calls for--even if you have to be a bit false to the original person. The actor has to make his depiction of the character a live theatrical event. Alan Alda is not a great actor. And for this role, that is what is needed.

Nevertheless, Alda tries hard; he even tries to explain physics to us--but in itself is sleep producing. But it wouldn't have been if the leading man were more dynamic. Besides it is not physics at the core of the play, but the man himself, his quest, his enjoyment and love of science.

To his credit, Alan Alda fell in love with Richard Feynman. After reading a book about Feynman written by his colleague, Alda took the book to Gordon Davidson at the Mark Taper theater in Los Angeles who, in turn, took it to Peter Parnell and the script was born. Perhaps this trio should be supported for trying to bring some intellectuality onto the stage. "QED" plays Sunday and Monday evenings only-- an unusual arrangement; the night I saw it the house was completely sold out. And the audience seemed to love it. [Croyden]

Margaret Croyden's book "Conversations with Peter Brook" will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the Fall.

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