Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Work of Genius: Mike Nussbaum's Performance as Albert Einstein in 'Relativity' is Remarkably Brilliant -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a world premiere play by Mark St. Germain
directed by BJ Jones
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru June 25

I first saw and liked Mike Nussbaum in David Mamet's excellent 1987 film, House of Games.

Since 2002, when the Chicago-based actor was just 78, I've seen him 11 times in a variety of local theater productions, including Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, two Sondheim musicals (at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater), four plays--including the current one--at Northlight Theatre (for whom he was the founding Artistic Director in 1975) and in 2012 playing the titular genius in Freud's Last Session, which, like Relativity, was written by Mark St. Germain.

As, just a bit past half of Nussbaum's 93 years, I'm hard pressed simply to stand for 30 consecutive minutes, let alone memorize lines or perform in any meaningful way, I won't apologize for being impressed merely by the esteemed actor's continued ability to grace a stage.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
According to Actors' Equity Association--per the press release for Relativity--Mike Nussbaum is the oldest actor still working on stage.

So it's amazing to appreciate just how truly outstanding he remains an actor.

I wanted to see Relativity primarily to watch Nussbaum play Albert Einstein, candidly caring more about the former than the latter. And I swear, midway through the play--just 70 minutes with 3 cast members--I felt like I was watching Albert Einstein, not an actor embodying him.

There are other reasons to see Relativity, including fine performances by Katherine Keberlein and Ann Whitney.

I think it prudent for me to avoid any specifics about the plot; best that anyone seeing it arrive unknowing, and even unguessing, where St. Germain will take things, even given considerable historic liberties.

Though there isn't tremendous biographical depth, I learned several things about Einstein I never knew, and one of the show's key questions--can you, or should you, appreciate the great accomplishments of someone you might not consider a good person--is something I seem to debate at least monthly.

Should I watch and champion the films of Mel Gibson, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski? Should ugly insinuations about Alfred Hitchcock lessen my enjoyment of his brilliant movies? Can I love Guns 'N Roses, still, despite perceiving Axl Rose to be a wife-abusing asshole? Was it wrong for me to cheer for Aroldis Chapman with the Cubs given his domestic violence transgressions?

I fully admit to being inconsistent about matters like these, which rarely are precisely parallel.

As someone suggested the other day, what we're willing to overlook may well depend on how much a given person's art--or as in Einstein's case, other such brilliance--means and matters to us.

To wit, I can live contentedly without ever again watching reruns of The Cosby Show, but damn if I'll be giving up the Beatles no matter how damning any evidence that John Lennon wasn't always an upstanding guy.

And of course, while there are always gray areas, criminal matters can be rather different than someone being a cheating husband or emotionally abusive or absent father. But given one's own personal experiences, it's not impossible that the latter can seem more grievous. 

What Relativity alleges about Einstein, largely having to do with familial flaws, are things I'd never heard before, and in both a dramatic realm and informative one, the play is worthwhile--even if I'm not sure I really needed or wanted to know about the genius' imperfections.

Anyway, it's pretty obvious to say that with a lesser cast Relativity probably wouldn't seem as good. Great actors always elevate material in ways that lesser ones don't.

And it's not impossible to imagine other stalwart actors playing Albert Einstein well.

But at Northlight, under the direction of his longtime friend and colleague BJ Jones--they met during the troupe's nascent days--Mike Nussbaum is extraordinary, even with a script that otherwise may not quite be considered brilliant.

Which I think is my convoluted way of saying that Relativity, as written and even otherwise well-performed, would probably merit @@@@ from me.

But Nussbaum himself, in this role, at the age of 93--or even if he were 53--deserves @@@@@.

Which gets me to @@@@1/2 and a rather emphatic recommendation that you see this remarkable performer in a play that--most of all, because of its star in Skokie--is worth your time, money and attention.

His really is a work of genius. 

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