Monday, April 18, 2011


I hardly know where to begin…perhaps with a salute to the late Jon Lipsky. In addition to authoring a wealth of plays, Lipsky effected a meeting of sorts of the left and right brain by co-founding the MIT Catalyst Collaborative with Underground Railway Theatre “to encourage the collaboration of science and theater.”

Together CC @MIT and URT are producing Hugh Whitemore’s brilliant BREAKING THE CODE, about the extraordinary life and times of Alan Turing (playing through May 8th at the Central Square Theatre). Turing is the scientist credited with decoding the Nazi’s “enigma” machine and in Winston Churchill’s words, “saving Great Britain from defeat at the hands of the Germans.”

The History Channel recently televised a program about the “enigma” code created by a typewriter equipped with rotors and grids which generate hundreds of thousands of permutations, all of which can shift combinations daily, thereby making deciphering messages almost impossible. That is, until Turing engineered his “computer.” Many celebrations are planned for the inventor of the modern computer on the anniversary of his centenary in 2012.

If your curiosity about “enigma” has been piqued, by all means see BREAKING THE CODE. If you prefer stories which can break your heart, see BREAKING THE CODE, by any means. It’s not a dry COPENHAGEN sort of play. BREAKING THE CODE is flesh and blood, passion and betrayal, on a grand scale. It’s the best play I’ve seen in a long, long time. I get chills just replaying scenes in my mind.

Another code that Turing broke nearly broke him. His OBE award was of no help when he was tried and convicted of “gross indecency” after the war. Accused Had Powerful Brain read the headlines which just decades earlier lauded his patriotism. Like Oscar Wilde, he was imprisoned for being homosexual and suffered even after prison on mandatory estrogen therapy.

Director Adam Zahler’s vision of Whitemore’s play is inspired, from the crystal performances, full of dazzling facets, to Janie E. Howland’s clever replication of the “enigma” diagram over our heads (with wires crossing like Cat’s Cradle strings, connecting point to counterpoint, suggesting that string theory evolved from Turing’s equations). Behind us Howland has chalked mathematical formulae forwards and backwards, like Turing’s dreams, on blackboards visible from either side of the playing area.

Allyn Burrows straightens from ill at ease, stuttering outsider to confident warrior when Turing is engaged in explaining his theories. Burrows’ shoulders square and a light shines from inside, illuminating his charm (or was that a Franklin Meissner, Jr. lighting effect?) It’s an immeasurable tour de force. Debra Wise, too, gives a performance of exquisite beauty, transforming as she rallies to her son in his hour of need. Just holding his hand brought me to tears.

Danny Bryck gives each of his characters a palpable soul and Liz Hayes imbues Turing’s friend and colleague with a wistful sadness. Marc Harpin is plenty officious as the bureau man but it’s Dafydd ap Rees who gives the play its lovely touches of humor.


Exactly across the river (as the crow flies) the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre and the Boston Center for American Performance are presenting eight of Jon Lipsky’s ten-minute plays written for the annual Boston Theatre Marathon. WALKING THE VOLCANO (playing at BPT through May 1st) unites the plays and finds a common thread: Each takes place at a moment of heightened awareness for its characters.

The plays fit a nifty chronological arc as well, starting in the ‘60s and ending with events in more recent memory. Lipsky takes us from the bloody battlefields of Viet Nam to the indulgent world of rock stars to the wrenching reunions that rip us apart. Director Elaine Vaan Hogue couldn’t find a better cast to impersonate Lipsky’s characters. Jess Moss and Brian Vaughan perform the younger set with an intensity which takes your breath away – and then blows your mind away with their rock ‘n roll chops.

Paula Langton and Gabriel Kuttner play a generation (or two) older with sage savvy. What a pleasure to watch these performers work their magic. Kudos, too, to designer Jon Savage (and Marc Olivere)’s gorgeous Louise Nevelson-esque sculpted set which cleverly turns into a dock and a hospital bed.

The Boston University Theatre community will honor Lipsky with a memorial celebration at the Huntington Theatre on Monday, May 9th @7:30 P.M.