Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams was the miracle concept album of novels. It’s based on the whimsical premise of a young Albert Einstein being troubled by dreams, each a different conceptualized world with discrete rules of how time works. In one, the time of the world’s ending is known by all, whose lives are liberated by this knowledge. In another, the pace of time is inversely relative to one’s motion, and subsequently all move faster to maximize their time. The charm of this book rests largely in the imaginative potential of its time experiments, and Lightman’s beautifully rendered worlds within the dreams. Einstein himself, only present in the interludes, is in spite of this fully realized, albeit a muted, pensive figure, whose head is his heart, and whose heart is reflected mostly by a faithful sounding board in the character of his friend Besso.
So, how does this material adapt to the stage? How does one capture the potential of the dreamworlds, while reconciling the novel’s anthological nature? Joanne Sydney Lessner (book/lyrics) and Joshua Rosenblum’s (music/lyrics) solution is to insert a new character: Josette, the personification of Time itself, whose “siren call” lures Einstein, the “one man in all of history capable of understanding and truly knowing her,” into the dreams. Einstein’s pursuit of her, away from his stagnating marriage and mundane desk job, prompts his explorations of the dreams and the crafting of his theory of relativity.
The now weirdly adulterous nature of Einstein’s research is exacerbated by his ultimately realizing that his “future” lies with Mileva in real life. This show, which seems so much more concerned with Einstein’s character and life, and which uses Josette’s manipulation of time to glimpse at the future implications of Einstein’s work (in the atom bomb), is oddly silent on his impending marital turmoil.
Einstein, now impassioned and buoyant in the hands of Zal Owen, is as Brennan Caldwell’s upbeat Besso: instruments of sound and fury, signifying less in nuance than their source characters in the novel. As Josette, Alexandra Silber’s voice and characterization make the best of a statically written presence, and a talented band and ensemble steps in and out of the dreams to formulaic choreography. David Bengali’s projection design creates surreal images and spirals on a large circular (clocklike) disk to great effect.
The most memorable moments of the show are individual ones highlighting narratives exclusive to their dreams, such as a heartfelt elegy (“I Will Never Let You Go”) from Tess Primack’s Marta to a daughter that time gives her the tantalizing option to keep, and cage, in her youth. To Lessner and Rosenblum’s credit, their elegant score of many distinct styles is frequently effective at capturing the essence of the dreams.
Einstein’s Dreams in its current form struggles, but carries a glimmer of potential for how the stage could complement the novel’s strengths, even in an adaptation.
Through Sunday December 15