Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Back and forth to the future

People don't take love lightly in Legacy of Light.

It would be wonderful if someone wrote a great play about Émilie du Châtelet, one of the pre-eminent women in the history of science - and almost certainly a genius in her own right - who even today remains largely unknown because sexist convention kept her in the respective shadows of Voltaire, Newton and Leibniz.

Legacy of Light, by Karen Zacarias, at the Lyric Stage through March 13, purports to be that play. But it isn't, not really. It is, instead, a gently half-baked rewrite of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. Which makes it the second feminine rewrite of a play by a major male writer I've seen in the last two or three years (Theresa Rebeck's Mauritius was the other). I hope this isn't becoming a trend.

But anyway, back to the fascinating Émilie (at left), who not only played a key role in the dissemination of Newton's ideas (her translation of the dense and eccentric Principia is still the standard - actually make that the only - version in French), but also refined and even corrected some of them. In her spare time, she published key insights into the nature of light, and re-formulated Newton's conception of kinetic energy. And she managed all this while running a substantial household, busying herself with a succession of lovers, and keeping up a long relationship (sometimes sexual, sometimes not) with Voltaire, the leading, and most controversial, intellectual of the day (a polymath, she also became fluent in several languages, and between boyfriends translated the Bible).

Obviously du Châtelet was brilliant and tireless, but she was also insecure, deceptive, and sexually manipulative (perhaps out of necessity more than predilection). A play about her, one feels, should be dazzling, sprawling, almost too crammed with incident, and maybe even a little kinky. But alas, playwright Karen Zacarias cuts her grand subject down to New-Age size, and while Legacy of Light is sweet, everything in it is slight and pre-digested. The script echoes Arcadia by pairing Émilie's last days - she died at 42 after an unwanted pregnancy (the newborn also died) - with the travails of a harried, driven female astrophysicist in present-day New Jersey. But Zacarias has little of Tom Stoppard's theatrical ambition; instead of probing the collision between two ages, she seems to merely want to offer some sort of mystical encouragement to female scientists of the here and now. In Legacy of Light, all the wrongs done Émilie are made right via the whimsical intervention of the space-time continuum, as characters begin popping in and out of each other's centuries (à la the dreaded Sarah Ruhl). "Everything changes, but nothing is lost," the playwright purrs, so don't worry if you die in childbirth at 42, it's going to be all right a few centuries from now.

Which is an awfully nice thing to think, isn't it. And I'm sure female scientists, like everybody else, could use the encouragement. You can have it all, if you're willing to wait a few hundred years! Only it's worth noting that Zacarias can only whip up a mystical re-incarnation of du Châtelet's lost child, not the scientific insights that never happened because of her tragic death. So I'm afraid the trade-off between sex and science that Zacarias tip-toes up to but never quite wrestles with is nevertheless still very much with us. And the finale of the play, in which via chick-flick metaphysics Émilie's offspring are reborn even as our present-day lady scientist discovers a new planet, is wonderfully heart-warming but also, well, a total crock.

So I guess we'll just have to wait a little longer for a play worthy of Émilie du Châtelet. In the meantime, the Lyric production has its moments, mostly due to Diego Arciniegas, who gives us a wearily vain Voltaire who's still obviously carrying a torch somewhere for his better, brighter half. (He would have been lost in the mathematical thickets of the Principia without du Châtelet; at right is the frontispiece of their translation - for which Voltaire got credit - with Émilie holding the mirror that illuminates his efforts).

Alas, Arciniegas only manages to strike the occasional spark with Sarah Newhouse (both below left), who simply pounds her usual no-nonsense template down onto Émilie. We get little feeling for her affection for her aging consort, or her documented insecurity (poignantly, she doubted she had any real genius), and you can forget all about the thrill of discovery or the frantic drive that propelled her to translate Newton even as labor - and death - approached. Newhouse succeeds in making du Châtelet a kind of handsome, self-possessed executive, but that's about it; the sad thing is that we sense that's how the playwright envisions her, too.

There are a few good moments elsewhere in the production, mostly thanks to Susanne Nitter, whose natural eloquence nearly manages to make sense of that latter-day astrophysicist. (For some reason, after ovarian cancer she hires a surrogate to carry her husband's child, rather than simply adopting - even though said husband could care less; why??) Meanwhile Rosalie Norris does what she can with the role of the surrogate, even as the usually-reliable Jonathan Popp fumbles a double role as two masculine "puppies."

Director Lois Roach blocks well enough, but doesn't really "direct." But Charles Schoonmaker's eighteenth-century costumes are, as ever, to die (and maybe be re-incarnated) for. And Janie E. Howland's elegantly simple design manages to squeeze France, New Jersey, and even Newton's apple tree onto a single set. Would these real talents had a real play on which to expend their efforts.

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