Sunday, March 27, 2005

Restoring the Sun (Cleveland Play House)

‘RESTORING THE SUN’ in world premiere at CPH

On March 23, 1989, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann announced their discovery of "cold fusion." It was the most heavily hyped science story of the decade, but the awed excitement quickly evaporated amid accusations of fraud and lack of a provable scientific process. When it was over, Pons and Fleischmann were humiliated, their reputations ruined, and they dropped out of sight. "Cold fusion" and "hoax" became synonymous.

Despite the scandal, laboratories in at least eight countries are still spending millions on cold fusion research. This work has yielded a huge body of evidence, which has remained virtually unknown because most academic journals adamantly refuse to publish papers on the subject. According to many scientists, cold fusion, the process that would eliminate the world’s dependence on oil and other fossil fuels for energy, remains a colossal conspiracy of denial.

Playwright Joe Sutton seized upon the Pons/Fleischmann/Cold Fusion story and has developed it into a play which is receiving its world premiere at the Cleveland Play House. The script, which was featured in last season’s “Next Stage Festival of New Plays,” was originally commissioned and developed by The Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science and Technology Project.

The subject is fascinating, the play is not. That is not to say audiences will be bored. They won’t. The subject matter insures that the viewer is going to be interested. It is just that the script needs work, especially when comparing it to ‘COPENHAGEN,’ another story of scientists which is tightly written and lends itself to a strong performance, such as that at Actors’ Summit last season.

The play’s dialogue is often forced and unnatural. In some cases, language is manipulated rather than being natural. For example, characters explain what they have just experienced to other characters who have also had the same experience. Also, in most plays we quickly learn the necessary character names and information about the situation. Not in this script. The exposition wanders throughout the entire first act. In addition, some of the staging devices are forced. People step in and out of scenes with no motivation, appearing in doorways for no reason, inserting themselves into conversations with no incentive.

Director Connie Grappo doesn’t help matters by pacing the production slowly . She also seems to have failed to probe deeply into character motivations with her cast.

Joseph Adams, who plays Professor Stevens, lacks cunning. Here is an unknown academician who hooks his star to an old, but respected scientific researcher in order to gain notoriety, but seems relaxed and unscrupulous throughout. Daniel Cantor, who portrays a public relations opportunist, stays on the surface, not revealing his underlying motivations. Keira Naughton, who portrays a journalist who is suspicious of the process, underplays the role to the degree that one wonders about her incentive. Stephen Bradbury is unconvincing as the University President who encourages the work of the two scientists. Only Geddeth Smith, as the old scientist who wants so much to make real his “pet theory,” is totally believable.

This is not to say the performances are bad, they aren’t. They just lack texturing and the nuances necessary to portray real people with real agendas. Part of this is caused by the script, part of it is the directing.

Side note: As has happened with most of the productions in the poorly conceived Baxter Theatre, ‘RESTORING THE SUN’ isn’t aided by the configuration. It can only be hoped that new CPH Artistic Director Michael Bloom will recognize the folly of the space and not use it in the future.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: The Cleveland Play House should be applauded for producing a new play. It should also be applauded for presenting a vehicle which probes a fascinating topic. Unfortunately, neither the script nor the production live up to their potential.