By Jean Sidden
The connections between issues surrounding the development of the first atomic bomb and present day global efforts to end Iran’s nuclear aspirations, are obvious. Jack Karp’s play Irreversible attempts to lay all the issues out and debate them at length while also giving the bomb’s architect, J. Robert Oppenheimer, enough personal problems to make his leadership on the project a mess. But Oppy is an arrogant, ambitious man and can hardly be distracted by personal entanglements.
In the New Mexico desert Los Alamos was the site of the encampment created to use the scientific and technical talents of the best minds the government and Oppenheimer (Jordan Kaplan) could find to create what they nicknamed “the gadget.” Oppenheimer’s brother Frank (Josh Doucette) is the one who comes up with the solution to making the bomb behave itself and detonate when it’s supposed to. When the bomb is tested, one of the play’s better technical moments, General Groves (Hugh Sinclair) who is in charge of the camp, is ecstatic, Oppenheimer is impressed and Frank witnesses the damage first hand via Oppenheimer’s horses that were too close to the explosion and will be used to track the after effects of exposure. The debates begin as to why the bomb must or must not be used, where it will be used, how it will be used, and whether or not it should be used. The detonation over Hiroshima misses its intended target and detonates over a heavily populated area. The massive destruction on a human level was never quite understood before. The general accepts the need for a bold strategy against the Japanese – they have three days to surrender and if they don’t the second bomb will be dropped. The history of the United States and the world from that point forward has been sealed.
If this weren’t enough to keep the stakes high and the audience interested, into all the extremely important history comes a personal plot line that interrupts the atomic action. Oppenheimer is married to Kitty (Laura Pruden) and has a small son. He was once seriously involved with Jean (Amelia Mathews) who never seems to understand that Robert is not hers anymore and stages various suicide attempts and threats, drinks too much but is still able to pull the man away from his work and manipulate him. In certain scenes all the plotlines converge and dialogue overlaps. Frank wants the bomb stopped, Kitty knows Oppenheimer has been to see Jean, Jean pleads for attention, the general wants the bomb to be used. Oppenheimer is at the center of all the arguments at once and it’s a wonder he’s not the suicide case.
There may be no other way to handle all this information of a man juggling the personal and the public, but the personal life does not sufficiently inform the public life and the interjection of the scenes with the two women has the quality of making them both seem like nags. If Karp wanted to show the human side of Oppenheimer it is negated by Oppenheimer’s cruelty in several situations including his relationship with his brother. Most of the scenes are long harangues over what has been made public knowledge for all the years since the bomb and makes for slow going in moving the play along. The challenge for anyone seeking to dramatize this important historical moment is to find something new to say or a new presentation of the well known facts. This may have been Karp’s intention but arguing for over two hours only serves to make tiresome what should be specific.
The cast is a stand out. Even if the female roles are caricatures, Pruden and Mathews still do a respectable job making them as real as possible. Sinclair, as the general, brings strong character work that is reminiscent of the Slim Pickens character in Dr. Strangelove. The general’s enthusiasm for the bomb is a necessary counterpoint to Doucette’s Frank who brings the most solidly believable feel to his role as the younger brother of the brilliant Robert. Popping in for two scenes is Dan Odell as a softspoken, fatherly Niels Bohr, another advocate for reining in the impending arms race. As Oppenheimer Kaplan is too young for the role and too contemporary in his delivery. Kaplan makes every line a speech which turns Oppenheimer into an unbelievable politician, on his soapbox throughout. Where Kaplan succeeds is in portraying a man whose arrogance supersedes his humanity and judgment. The sheer energy he brings to the role helps keep otherwise longwinded scenes afloat.
Irreversible – Written by Jack Karp. Directed by Melanie Moyer Williams.
WITH: Jordan Kaplan (J. Robert Oppenheimer), Josh Doucette (Frank Oppenheimer), Hugh Sinclair (General Groves), Laura Pruden (Kitty Oppenheimer), Amelia Mathews (Jean Tatlock), Dan Odell (Niels Bohr)
Scenic Design by Andrew Mannion, Costume Design by Rebecca L. Welles , Sound Design by Andy Evan Cohen, Lighting Design by Marie Yokoyama, Props by Deb Gouette, Production Stage Manager: Sammee Wortham, Press Representative: Bruce Cohen. Presented by The Red Fern Theatre Company, www.redferntheatre.org , at The 14th Street Y Theatre, 344 E. 14th Street, New York, NY. From March 12th – March 29th, 2015. Running time 2 hours 20 minutes; 1 intermission.