By Sarah Downs
A lot can happen on a train, but for the three characters in Strings Attached a simple jaunt to London turns into a journey of self-discovery they could not have imagined. Loosely based on the real story of a trio of physicist on a train ride to London to see a performance of “Copenhagen” (ironically, another play about physicists), Strings Attached delves into the subjects of physics, a science which has successfully posited the existence of parallel universes, and relationships, which are a universe unto themselves.
The protagonists find themselves in one of those parallel universes, visited by a retinue of oddities, including an hilarious pair of Ukrainian peasants, eccentric train conductors and the ghosts of science past, called to the stage when Rory asks which of any physicist in history each one of them would be.
The cast is excellent, acting and reacting in the moment. Rory (Brian Richardson), a roiling collection of defenses and insecurities is the most emotionally charged, at least externally, of the three. By contrast, staunch and seemingly impassive George (Paul Schoeffler) is naturally overbearing, even if he does not want to be. He suffers a constant internal battle between his religious faith and his faith in science. Schoeffler’s beautiful speaking voice projects easily, in perfect alignment with his character. (Robyne Parrish) is the fulcrum balancing the two attempting to please both while also managing her own anguish, expressed tenderly in a heartbreaking monologue in Act I.
Jonathan Hadley effortlessly fills the stage as a prancing, blasé Sir Isaac Newton, George’s choice of historical physicist. Hadley with his resounding voice and gesturing handkerchief is Newton the egotist. Newton the philosopher. Newton the fop. Rory’s choice, Max Planck (Russell Saylor) is more earthbound. Planck, famous for his discovery of an essential numerical constant in the field of particle physics is an apt ideal for Rory. Whether it be in love, or his perennial sense of social inferiority, volatile Rory could use a good constant. June favors Marie Curie (Bonnie Black) as her inspiration, for her commitment to science and courage in the face of loss.
In the chaos of dimensions at times Strings Attached feels almost stream of consciousness, and yet does not lose its way. It maintains structure, with its strong, intelligent dialogue. Director Alexa Kelly maintains an easy, natural tempo that gives space for both comedy and drama. In its set design, with its curtain of floating neon planets and Calculus equations, and evocative, ghostly lighting effects, the production values reinforce the mystery and mathematics of our world, down to the Bach Inventions that play as an overture. How perfect to use these Baroque gems, the building blocks Western music, to set the stage for a play about the building blocks of the universe.
Physics, seemingly so concrete, is at its deepest level pure theory, doing battle with perceived reality and layered on a principle of uncertainty. As George says, quantum physics shows us that “we co-conspire with the environment to create reality.” Seen in this light, physics takes on a whole new dimension (pun intended), revealing an inherent humanity. In a narrative that makes manifest the drama of nature, from the intersection of disparate elements, to the energy that passes between electrons, to the speed of change, to the unpredictability of love, the waves don’t lie. The trick is to live within the mystery.
Strings Attached, by Carol Buggé, directed by Alexa Kelly. With Robyne Parrish, Brian Richardson, Paul Schoeffler, Bonnie Black, Jonathan Hadley and Russell Saylor. Scenic design by Jessica Parks, lighting design by Joyce Liao, costume design by Elena Vannoni, videography by Katerina Vitaly, and sound design by Louis Lopardi.
Strings Attached presented by Pulse Theatre; playing at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street, NYC). Limited engagement September 9 through October 1st. Wed. through Sat. at 7.30PM, with matinees Wed. and Sun. at 3PM. Tickets are $55 and are now on sale at TheatreRow.org or by calling the box office, 212-714-2442 ext. 45.