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Stage Review

Actors' will can't find the way to make this dated play fresh

From left: Roger Rees, Rob Campbell, and Mark Blum play a trio of sanatorium patients in 'The Physicists.' From left: Roger Rees, Rob Campbell, and Mark Blum play a trio of sanatorium patients in "The Physicists." (Joan Marcus)

WILLIAMSTOWN -- Friedrich Durrenmatt's "The Physicists" feels painfully dated. In a world in which improvised explosive devices generate more fear than the atomic bomb, a play about preventing knowledge from getting into the wrong hands seems out of synch. Set in 1962, this darkly comic drama lacks the intensity of Durrenmatt's better-known "The Visit," and it gets tangled in overwrought plot twists. But the Williamstown Theatre Festival production delivers a sudden jolt of energy halfway through the second act, due in large part to the sheer force of will of the three leading players.

Durrenmatt's tale, really more of a Cold War polemic, is set in the Cherry Trees Sanatorium, where three delusional physicists are kept. Ernest Henry Ernesti (Mark Blum) believes he is Albert Einstein, Herbert George Butler (Roger Rees) believes he is Sir Isaac Newton, and Jonathan William Mobius (Rob Campbell) believes he is visited by King Solomon, who reveals the unified field theory, the theory of equivalency, and the principals of universal discovery to him. All three are, however, playing at madness, which results not only in the murder of three nurses, but a ridiculously complicated explanation for their deaths.

Director Kevin O'Rourke never seems sure how to play the scenes, awkwardly shifting between comic and serious moments. He also has a tendency to position his actors in static tableaux, which drain energy from the scenes. Alexander Dodge's lovely but divided set appears similarly misguided in conception. In this sanatorium, which is supposed to be part of an old estate in which the men are pampered with fine food and wine, we see two competing realities: an elegant if faded drawing room, complete with French doors out to a garden, and a sterile, locked-down hospital area. The division is off-putting, especially in a play in which the audience requires assistance in navigating all the awkward twists and turns.

Fortunately, Blum, Rees, and Campbell rise to the occasion as their characters' carefully constructed pretenses fall away. Blum is almost childlike as the wry, absent-minded professor; Rees is commanding, almost comically condescending as he plops on his Newton wig; and Campbell's ardent plea to protect mankind from scientific knowledge is delivered with earnest sincerity.

"The Physicists" marks the festival's first collaboration with the Williams College Summer Theatre Lab for a production on the lab's Center Stage. Although the partnership offers a wonderful opportunity for students to work with these pros, both on and off stage, some inexperience showed in the young actors, which only added to the production's disjointed nature. Perhaps next time the festival and the lab can choose a more engaging play.


The Physicists

Play by Friedrich Durrenmatt

Directed by: Kevin O'Rourke. Sets, Alexander Dodge. Lights, Colin K. Bills. Costumes, Deborah A. Brothers.

Presented by Williamstown Theatre Festival in association with Williams College Summer Theatre Lab.

At: Center Stage, Williamstown, through Aug. 18. Tickets: $33, $35. 413-597-3400,