Being drawn to a show because of the subject is a double-edged sword. Expectations are heightened, which is thrilling, but also allows for greater disappointment. Doing a show about a particular real world person (in this case, a true wizard) rides that same sword: you are opening yourself up for another, higher, level of scrutiny and criticism. Unfortunately, Tesla, currently showing at Theatre 80, cannot live up to the expectation nor the scrutiny.
As a big fan of Tesla, a genius with a life story as simultaneously inspiring and devastating as they come, I jumped at the chance to see this show. Tesla was a Serbian-American engineer, physicist, innovator, and inventor (among other things) leading up to and through the turn of the century. For this production, there was a huge production team, so I was hoping for some magic and technical creativity in the theatre, and a representation of a life interesting enough that it could be told in a straight forward monologue and I would be rapt.
However, the direction and text were structurally unsound, and the design/technical elements would have seemed poorly integrated and largely uninteresting even IF they had been functional (most of the elements did not actually work, but this may get ironed out over time). The saving grace for the moments that rose above the fraught production were brought by a handful of skilled performers, taking opportunities to drive the narrative and make bold choices.
The direction and script seem intrinsically linked, so it is difficult to pinpoint the creative starting points. Regardless, the results are troubling. Both the presentation and the text seemed to struggle from a lack of solid structure and a lack of interest in weight and build. All of the episodes presented in the life of Tesla seemed to carry the same value, which created a strange lack of contrast in Old Tesla (and his surroundings) and Young Tesla (and his), which was the narrative frame for the entire production. Old Tesla hardly seemed penniless and worn down (wikipedia style references to pigeons do not count), and Young Tesla seemed in a frozen state of wide-eyed hopefulness conveyed via split focus scenes, forcing the actor into direct address with the audience and scene-acting with another character. The meeting with King Peter seemed on the same wavelength as the various business negotiations and the awkward love scene. The episodes were all a beige wash.
Within the wash, there were two off-putting choral bits. The first seemed to borrow a melody from Les Mis and involved cloaks and masks. The second used chanting and marching. Neither created the desired effects, as there either needed to be more chorus members to make it seem overwhelming and otherworldly or needed enhancement from a sound designer. However, these changes would not make the two scenes necessary or meaningful.
In a similar vein, the show opened with a character struggling to read, which is painful to watch and even The Miracle Worker knew better than to start a play with that kind of dull business. As the show progresses, the moments that once worked become tedious (poor Marconi... repetition killed the character), and other moments seemed tacked on and limp (poor Katherine... nothing to do but smile-cry-act in your only real scene and float around as a context-less lady).
The technical elements were also unfocused and hard to watch. If one is aiming to do a tech-heavy presentation of the life of a technical wizard, the creative team should really check out what is possible (for cheap, even!) in the downtown NY theatre world. I have seen some truly amazing things, including an enormous Tesla coil, projections onto fog, iPhone powered robots and sound, and much much more. Tesla would have screamed for more! Or begged for simplification: a bare stage and a single light.
In this production, the projections did nothing to enhance the world (which had to do with placement, content, and transitions), the inventions were all store-bought and underutilized, and the set communicated nothing in particular about the world of the Old or New Tesla. There was a chalkboard with a science book drawing of alternating currents that was never touched, there were charts taped to the floor that were never referenced, there was a radio that was mentioned constantly and in the one moment it was "played" no sound came from it but instead we watched a movie pretending to be a radio broadcast... I was and am beside myself.
The strength of the production is found in the moments created by individual performers, a testament to the craft of acting. Colla (as Tesla's friends and colleagues Westinghouse and Twain) and Solomon (as radio "inventor" Marconi) are character-actor dreams, utilizing every entrance and exit and all that lay between, allowing spontaneous reactions to mingle with precise choices (gesture, gate, voice, posture, etc). Pagdon (the big bad JP Morgan Chase) and Dimich (Old Tesla) are sturdy, secure men, and find a pleasing ease in their portrayals. Cappadona (Edison) is a fine, fine phone actor in the style of Newhart and is able to draw the audience in after the bumpy opening scene.
As for this theatre-goer, I will continue seeing plays about interesting historical figures, hoping for the best. The fun is in the journey, I hear.