I’ve seen a lot of plays about the famous and infamous. Rosanna Alfaro’s MARTHA MITCHELL comes to mind. Peter Shaffer successfully turned Salieri against Mozart in AMADEUS…and I mustn’t forget Tom Stoppard’s socio-political unification of Lenin, Tristan Tzara and James Joyce in TRAVESTIES. Now the Nora Theatre corrals Senator Joseph McCarthy, Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe and Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio for Terry Johnson’s comedy of cosmic manners, INSIGNIFICANCE (playing through Feb. 9th).
Isn’t it amazing that the Marilyn Monroe mystique still persists today. It seems every year a new book emerges with “never before seen photographs.” Legend has it that she was so bright she could—and maybe did—hold her own in a room with Albert Einstein. That’s the playwright’s contention at any rate. She certainly sought out poets and playwrights for intellectual stimulation (and we know how that worked out for her.)
We meet her, in Johnson’s play, knocking at Einstein’s door late at night, insisting he let her in. His hotel overlooks the street where she’s filming THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH and she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to meet him. He’s in town for a conference on world peace. So in she barges and before you can say ‘chain reaction’ she’s illustrating his relativity theory with a couple of flashlights and two toy trains.
It’s a clever idea but the physics lesson goes on a bit too long. Inspired, too is the notion that Senator McCarthy would want to coach Einstein on how to testify before his Committee on Un-American Activities, if he testifies, that is. That, too, seemed to run out of steam. Johnson introduces DiMaggio largely for comic relief, chasing after his wife like a deranged teenager—but to me it seemed unfair to paint him as such a dolt.
The difficulty with portraying people we’ve seen countless times in news footage, sports films or movies is that we have a solid picture in our mind’s eye and we have to match it up with the portrayal(s) in front of us. Happily, Barry M. Press makes a formidable McCarthy, right down to the sneer. Richard McElvain is a charming, bemused elder genius of an Einstein and Stacy Fischer captures that ephemeral essence and dangerous vulnerability that was Monroe. In the playwright’s portrayal of DiMaggio we see the ballplayer (a game Alexander Platt chomping away on bubble gum) but not the sentimentalist who supplied Monroe’s gravesite with fresh roses until he died.
Director Daniel Gidron and company courageously punch up the humor of the piece but when Act II takes a turn toward melodrama, everything is thrown off kilter. The playwright tries to string it all together but it ends (my apologies to T.S. Eliot) with a whimper not a big bang.