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Theater review: 'Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie' at Geffen Playhouse

November 10, 2011 |  2:50 pm

Marie curie 1

In his long and justly celebrated acting career, Alan Alda has frequently been called upon to play doctors. He has a kind of smiling command that suggests he won’t fall apart even if your body does. He’s best remembered, of course, for his role as the operating room Groucho Marx on the legendary TV sitcom “MASH.”

A well-known science nut (for years he hosted the PBS series “Scientific American Frontiers”), Alda has written a play that resembles at times a physician’s stab at writing for the stage. Which is to say his drama is informative, efficient, reliable — and when it’s over you’re glad.

The subject of “Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie,” which opened Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, is the two-time Nobel Prize-winning scientist whose research broke new ground in the understanding of radioactivity. The work is exquisitely mounted by veteran director Daniel Sullivan and features a striking performance by Anna Gunn in the title role, but Alda hasn’t so much dramatized his material as assembled watershed moments from Curie’s career and personal life.

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In his review of the 1943 film “Madame Curie,” James Agee describes the biopic as “safe, smooth, respectable, an epitome of all that the bourgeois likes what he calls his art to be.” “Radiance” is too innocent, too earnest for such words. Its intention seems largely instructional, a helpful theatrical cheat sheet on how Curie — an impoverished Polish immigrant who had to fight for her education, her laboratory resources and the recognition that was often denied her because she was a woman — became France’s most iconic scientific figure.

Given all the news reports on how America is falling behind because our students can’t keep up with the Chinese in physics and calculus, perhaps “Radiance” should be appreciated as a way of inspiring young people — young women especially — to don a white coat, raise a test tube and fire up a Bunsen burner. Gunn certainly gives a vivid account of Curie’s fanatical precision and obsessive drive, making geekiness seem not only attractive but even poetic.

Thomas Lynch’s moody sets, darkly lighted by Daniel Ionazzi and featuring luminous Parisian projections by John Boesche, provide a lyrical background for Curie as she struggles to isolate the pure element radium after the tragic death of her husband and lab partner, Pierre (John de Lancie). The whole visual palette of Sullivan’s production (enhanced by Rita Ryack’s costume designs that turn Gunn’s blond Curie into a softer, more somber Hedda Gabler) lends an air of gorgeous mystery to a drama that can seem straightforward to a fault.

Although chemistry and I were never the best of friends, I would have preferred a little more explication of Curie’s research and a little less melodramatic recapping of her affair with physicist Paul Langevin (Dan Donohue), whose vindictive wife, Jeanne (Sarah Zimmerman), is portrayed here as half Freudian hysteric, half Aeschylean Fury. Alda may have been encouraged to pursue the human angle, but he might have produced something more original had he gone the nerdy route.

I kept imagining “Radiance” as a PBS special — the tinkling underscoring, the one misstep of Sullivan’s staging, adding a ponderous TV drama note to the reenactment scenes. The acting level of the seven-person cast, marked by a curious intensity from the leads and solid if not always very specific work from the supporting players, represents the high end of these types of educational shows. Missing, however, are the explanatory voice-overs and “Radioactivity for Dummies” diagrams that make those programs enlightening even when artistically undistinguished.

The elegant Geffen production theatricalizes the story by keeping the actors present on the sidelines of the stage even when they’re not in a scene. Occasionally, this results in a haunting resonance, as when Gunn, whose Polish accent and stricken demeanor can’t help invoking Meryl Streep’s performance in “Sophie’s Choice,” longingly gazes over at De Lancie while conveying Curie’s grief for her dead husband.

More often, however, the sophisticated fluidity of the direction throws into relief the elementary nature of the writing. Maybe it’s too much to expect dramatic poetry from Alda, who though lacking in playwriting experience does have an impressive list of writing credits, including the film “The Seduction of Joe Tynan,” two bestselling books and an Emmy-winning episode of “MASH.” But I confess I ran home and immediately dug up Adrienne Rich’s poem about Curie, “Power,” which manages to more penetratingly capture the single-mindedness of a woman whose devotion literally poisoned her with radiation sickness — “her body bombarded … by the element/ she had purified.”

When Curie grows weaker from contamination in “Radiance,” the effect is that of some tragic romantic opera, as though what’s really killing her is heartbreak. Science probably needs to be made sexier for the scientifically indifferent, but the play was most alive for me when Gunn’s eyes flashed in a hot situation with cool empiricism.



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 — Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty

“Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie,” Geffen Playhouse’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, L.A. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays.  (Call for exceptions.) Ends  Dec. 11. $84 - $89. (310) 208-5454 or Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

Photos: Upper: Anna Gunn. Lower:  Dan Donohue and Anna Gunn.  Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times