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A Real Bomb

Richard Alan Nichols almost saves QED's physics professor from this doom.

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After an hour or so of QED, a gabby drama (mounted by the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre in a drafty, gorgeous garage) about a physics professor, I felt the tickle of new theories. Physicist Richard Feynman — played with rumpled charisma by Richard Alan Nichols — had been talking and talking about his remarkable life, his goofy passions and, occasionally, the way light travels not in lines but in gangs of particles. It's his office hours, but he keeps sending students away so he can write a lecture.

He doesn't write. He does lecture, reminding us that we're all piles of atoms. But mostly he dishes: about his first wife's death, about testifying in court to keep a local topless club open, about life at Los Alamos, where he played a key role in developing the bomb. He addresses us directly, even chucking a ball into the audience as he makes a point about how things fall. Or something. I really can't remember, because as soon as he made this point, he was on to something else entirely. Tribal throat singing, maybe, or the Challenger explosion, or how much Russians love Rodgers and Hammerstein. If we're piles of atoms, somehow held together with no clear center, this show is a pile of anecdotes, hardly held together at all.

Around the third time Los Alamos comes up, when the whole crowd is leaning in, eager for the unleashers of hell to provide us with some sort of insight into life, Feynman's stream-of-consciousness gets all dammed up again, this time with a phone-call from his doctors. His cancer is back, and he has to decide today whether he'll consent to an operation that will leave him on dialysis for the rest of his life. After some majestic furrows of Nichols' brow, this topic, too, is dispensed with, and we're back on to that lecture he doesn't want to write. Here's when I suddenly figured it out: He's a ghost, haunting this office, forced to relive his whole life at once.

Or else this is purgatory, with Feynman puttering around an office unable to finish anything. Or this whole thing is a clever extension of that annoying Pete and Re-Pete joke that my mom blew my mind with when I was a kid.

"Pete and Re-Pete were on a bridge, and Pete jumped off," she'd say. "Who was left?"

"Re-Pete."

Then, again, endlessly, like the cover of Ummagumma, going on and on but never getting anywhere new.

Feynman's a real guy, of course, and most of this is culled from his own writings. But Peter Parnell's script does him a disservice.

Parnell has cut and pasted the best bits of Feynman's life into a structure that seems meant to reflect the improbabilities of conversation. When photons of light hit glass, we're told, not every one passes through; similarly, we intuit, not every one of this genius' stories will be brought to a satisfying conclusion. After intermission, we return to Feynman's aborted subjects, one at a time, for a series of delayed climaxes.

In Act Two, Feynman returns to his office later on the same night. (At least that's what we're told. A remark about the moonlight brings to attention the fact that the lighting is exactly the same as in Act One.) There, as if ticking items off a list, he doles out payoffs, wrap-ups and call-backs, often to things we've already forgotten — and often with risible implausibility. In Act One, Feynman mentions a letter he wrote to his first wife a year or two after she died; late in the second half, he moons over said letter, telling us, "I haven't looked at this in over 40 years."

Seriously? Then why the hell is it in your college office, in a wooden box, right on top?

Nichols is funny and engaging, and he muscles underdeveloped scenes into something resembling drama. When he speaks of Los Alamos, the crowd doesn't breathe. Unfortunately, he seems hazy on the physics, and during a couple of elementary lectures, he seems to reach for his lines. Mostly, though, he's a lively pleasure, warm and unironed in both appearance and bearing, blessed with a scuffed-up voice just one good throat-clearing away from traditional loveliness. His Feynman is so turned on by life that the climactic decision about his surgery is a foregone conclusion — we know no glass will stop this photon.

Feynman's life, we're told, has been a dance with Nature, who has been reluctant to let him lift her veil. Toward the end, Feynman looks forward to death, unsure whether anything is left for him. But then a drunk and comely student shows up and quickly gets to doing the job of young women in plays like this: She shows him, flirtatiously, that life is worth living. After all this talk on all these fascinating topics, here's what we're left with: Nature may not lift her veil, but if you're brilliant, she's willing to put out.

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