Jewish Journal

Einstein’s allure is more than theory on stage

by Tom Tugend

Posted on Apr. 10, 2008 at 6:00 pm

We think of Albert Einstein, and we conjure up the image of a frail, unkempt and absent-minded old man, but a visit to the Einstein archives at Caltech provides quite another picture.

The man who radically transformed our understanding of the universe was adored by women, at 23 fathered an illegitimate child and after marriage had a few side flings with other women.

It is this rakish side of the great scientist that is celebrated in the world premiere of "The Smartest Man in the World" at the Pico Playhouse in West Los Angeles.

The singing, dancing, cavorting Einstein of this musical comedy may strike the reverent as a wild caricature, if not outright sacrilege, but there is a surprisingly large kernel of truth in the portrayal.

One may wonder how Einstein's attention to the fair sex left him any time, not to mention energy, to work on the theory of relativity, but the show contains serious moments, too.

One is his connection to his Jewishness, first ambivalent but then deep and intensive ("You Can't Be a Little Jewish," Alan Safier, as Einstein, sings). Another is his overpowering horror at the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima ("I have become a bomb maker," he laments).

But the play's main emphasis is on Einstein's relationships, alternately tender, cruel and forgetful, with three women in his life.

The first is Mileva (Gail Bianchi), a fellow university student in Switzerland, who worked out most of the mathematics for his early formulas. When Einstein split, she was prescient enough to demand that the then-lowly patent clerk sign over the money from any future Nobel Prize, which he did.

Next was Elsa (Terri Homberg-Olsen), his second wife and lifelong companion. The third was Helen (Dani Shear), his utterly devoted secretary for some 27 years and guardian of his voluminous correspondence after his death.

Finally, there's the man himself, portrayed by Safier -- last seen locally in the title role of "The Last Schwartz" -- ringing the changes from a young romantic Einstein to the elderly sage.

Overcoming a rather unbecoming gray wig, Safier does his character honor as a lively song-and-dance man, an unconventional but deeply rooted Jew, and a universal icon in spite of himself, summing it all up in "It Isn't Always Easy Being Einstein."

Credits for the upbeat, unconventional show go to the West Coast Jewish Theatre; lyricist Russ Alben, who co-wrote the book with John Sparks; director Herb Isaacs; composer Jerry Hart; music director Gerald Sternbach; choreographer Madeleine Dahn; scenic designer Sheldon Metz; producer Darin Anthony; pianist Jonathan Dinerstein, and a talented 10-person cast.

"The Smartest Man in the World" runs through May 11 at the Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd. Performances are Thursday through Saturday evenings, with Sunday matinees. For ticket information, phone (323) 860-6620.

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