nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
October 6, 2005
Einstein’s Gift is not about Albert Einstein, but rather about Nobel Prize winning chemist Fritz Haber. Haber was a man with a deep conviction in two things: the ability (if not requirement) of science to better humankind, and the greatness of Germany and its people.
Haber was Jewish but in his mind he was a German first. In the play, he tells a story again and again of an uncle who believed in the military superiority of the Germans so much that when asked by a Samurai to switch weapons he did so and in turn used the Samurai’s sword to cleave him in two before the Samurai could get off a shot. His nationalism is portrayed here as somewhat over-the-top, but for good reason. Playwright Vern Thiessen is letting us know that this is the ultimate question he will answer: what will it take to break Haber of his extreme nationalism and, to a lesser degree, his belief that science can only benefit humankind?
The play opens with Haber asking to be baptized so that he can, on paper at least, be a Christian. He wants to shred the stigma of being a Jew in Germany at the turn of the 20th century in order to advance his career. Haber, who is older and has already established himself in his field, meets the young Einstein right around the time of the publication of the theory of relativity. He thinks Einstein is a brilliant man, but to Haber his theories are useless and therefore dismissible. The two have a tenuous friendship, infrequently seeing each other over the next 40 years.
Thiessen's Haber is an ambitious, self-centered man who relishes acquiring many titles, making his sky-high fall from grace hit that much harder. Gradually his ambition alienates his first wife and his loyal assistant. He sees his brilliant work in chemistry used in some of the most brutal acts of murder known to man, namely chlorine gas in World War I and Zyklon B in Nazi death camps. In both cases his intentions were good but were swept aside by those in power. In the end, Haber has been utterly rejected by the country he loved so much and is forced to flee.
Thiessen cleverly uses Einstein as both narrator and a character in the play. He tells Haber’s story with a great deal of compassion and wonderful theatricality, often using direct addresses to the audience. Thiessen gives us his central dramatic question early on, but the answer is immediately clear so in a way I felt like I’d seen the ending before it happened. Despite this, the play has a gripping and palpable arc and Thiessen’s dialogue is crisp, especially that of Einstein. I found myself hanging on his every word, so even though I knew where it was going, I felt compelled to watch.
Shawn Elliott plays Einstein with an amazing balance of clarity and quirkiness. It is truly a star quality performance. Aasif Mandvi captures Haber’s drive and ambition as if he’s discovered an unlimited energy source within himself. Mandvi carries the arc of the story on his shoulders and he bears that weight with grace and power. Melissa Friedman delivers an honest performance as Haber’s first wife Clara. The rest of cast is solid and highly focused, most playing multiple roles.
Director Ron Russell’s staging is quite beautiful. Characters lurk in the background creating mood and poignancy. It’s a nice combination of stylization and realism. Margaret E. Weedon does a great job costuming the four decades of fashion covered here. John McDermott’s set is pragmatic and fits the stylization very well.
There’s a quote from a letter that Einstein wrote to Haber’s family after his death that reads, “…[Haber's life was] the tragedy of the German Jew, the tragedy of unrequited love…” His story needs to be heard regardless of its familiarity. It is a tragic lesson of history and a warning against the dangers of blind faith.