Blinded by the Light

The "dinner party for dead people" play, in which an author gathers people who may or may not have met in real life and plops them into the same room for supper, isn't officially recognized as a dramatic genre. But it's so popular that maybe it ought to be. Few playwrights can resist the temptation to cross the paths of, say, Scott Joplin and Irving Berlin (The Tin Pan Alley Rag) or Picasso and Einstein (Picasso at the Lapin Agile). Why write lines for a mere Willy Loman, after all, when you can write speeches for the stars?

A spinoff of this kinky phenomenon might be called the "dinner parties that actually happened and you are there" group. Included here are the proliferation of contemporary biographical dramas, from the recent hit Gross Indecency, which is culled from actual trial transcripts featuring Oscar Wilde, to The Belle of Amherst, in which Emily Dickinson's monologues, interior and otherwise, are the invention of the playwright. In South Florida in the past year, for example, in addition to those I've just mentioned, we've seen plays in which writers devised dialogue for would-be Reagan assassin John Hinckley, the Marquis de Sade, and Tallulah Bankhead.

Set a place for Isaac Newton at the burgeoning table. In fact throw in Edmund Halley (discoverer of the comet that bears his name), Jonathan Swift (discoverer of the Lilliputians), assorted wives and girlfriends, and one Gottfried von Leibniz (would-be discoverer of calculus, had Newton not gotten there first). The world premiere of The Comet's Tale, a play that intertwines the lives of all these people, recently opened at the Hollywood Playhouse. Directed by artistic director Andy Rogow, the production is respectable and attractive, though the play itself is not nearly as engaging or well thought out as the press release that announced it.

Set in London and Cambridge in 1682, Comet re-creates the meeting of Halley (Mark Swaner), a glib and popular scientist, and Newton (Peter Haig), a shy and brilliant recluse. Because Newton is anything but telegenic (or whatever the seventeenth-century equivalent would be), he embarrasses himself while presenting a paper to the Royal Academy and leaves in a fluster. From that point on, Newton is determined not to share his ideas with anyone. In real life Halley and Newton met around this time. Playwright Rand Higbee, a onetime scientist and teacher, imagines that Newton's papers fall into Halley's hands and that, soon thereafter, Halley gets himself invited to Newton's house for ... a dinner party.

And what a dinner party it is. The two scientists discuss the competing theories of light. Newton's new idea, of course, is that light is made of particles. Halley favors waves. Newton interjects, "Halley, you ignorant slut, a wave has to have substance to travel through" -- or words to that effect. At this point Haig, whose performance as Newton is one of the show's few redeeming qualities, does a little dance step, imitating, I think, the journey of a light wave through a "substance." The scientist's vigor is apparently wasted on the party's hostess, Newton's niece Catherine (Meridith Mursuli), who admonishes the two men to shut up and sit down.

If only someone had admonished the playwright. Dialogue that's overburdened with exposition about scientific theories is only one of the play's sins. The Comet's Tale, which details how Newton's ideas on gravity were presented to the Royal Academy by Halley (whereupon Newton was embraced by the scientific society and credited with changing the way we perceive the physical world) is more like a treatment for a script than a fully fleshed-out drama. In the tradition of mediocre made-for-TV biopics, the play relentlessly traces the history of the men's friendship, throwing in salacious details such as scenes from the Halleys' sex life and the affair that Halley struck up with Catherine Newton. What it never gives us is a reason to re-examine this meeting of minds.

I don't know how much of Higbee's biography of the two scientists is invention. But he surely takes liberties, none of which seems to serve the play. By far the most bizarre aspect of The Comet's Tale is that Higbee writes a part for Jonathan Swift, the leading author of the Seventeenth Century and one of the most brilliant satirists who ever lived, that's essentially a walk-on. I mean, if all you can do with the man who penned Gulliver's Travels and A Modest Proposal is to have him accompany Catherine Newton to the opera, why invite him at all? This demotion of Swift to a dramatic footnote is nothing, however, compared to opportunities the playwright misses to raise compelling questions about fame, celebrity, and the symbiosis of two extraordinary human beings.

Newton and Halley were apparently less than great friends but more than mere colleagues. Halley was no mere Salieri to Newton's Mozart. He had the vision to see that Newton was the proverbial giant on whose shoulders scientific dwarves, himself included, needed to stand. Without Halley, however, Newton's theories on gravity and light and his invention of calculus would have perhaps remained as scribbles in a musty notebook until another genius came along. Without Newton Halley would have been a minor figure, a man who predicted that the orbit of a particular comet lasted 76 Earth years. He may be a household name, but he's not exactly a luminary.

Indeed buried deep in The Comet's Tale is the germ of a play that comments on the intersection of the genius and the common man. Newton and Halley needed each other to succeed, but were they exploiting each other? Who had the most to gain? And what would result if the women in these men's lives were given something substantial to do and say and not be reduced to auxiliary roles? (Actresses Mursuli and Janet Erlick, cast as Halley's barefoot-and-pregnant wife, are utterly wasted here.) We'll have to leave it to a better playwright to explore those dramatic galaxies, a playwright who is interested in creating complex characters, not just stick figures reciting lines in The Comet's Tale.

At the Hollywood Playhouse the two men are impersonated by troupers whose acting skills are almost mirror images of their characters' talents. Haig is a perfectionist, an actor whose every movement -- from the way he scratches his nose to the manner in which he walks across the stage -- is designed down to the smallest detail. As always he is a pleasure to watch. Swaner's performance, on the other hand, is affected and mannered, coupled here with a bad British accent. (I found it hard to understand him and I can't imagine that the Playhouse's mostly retired subscribers could hear him at all.) Two other actors (Jeffrey Taylor as Swift and Gene Gabriel as Leibniz) are playing plot devices rather than characters.

The lack of authentic characters leaves Rich Simone's scenic design as the star of the show, though it really deserves to be in a different production altogether, as do Ann Toewe's well-appointed costumes. Using the limited physical resources of the Playhouse's proscenium stage, Simone has concocted a set that, for the play's opening and closing, gives us an illusion of stars that stretch deep into the midnight blue of infinity. (Ginny Adams's lighting design augments this magic, though in other scenes actors are unintentionally obscured by other actors' shadows.)

The sets indeed say more than the playwright does. For interior scenes furniture and curtains are constructed of bare, unupholstered wood that still bears the carpenter's marks and measurements, as if to remind us that Newton showed us brave new ways to measure the universe. All that's needed now is someone to tell the story.

The Comet's Tale.
Written by Rand Higbee. Directed by Andy Rogow. With Peter Haig, Mark Swaner, Janet Erlick, Meridith Mursuli, Jeffrey Taylor, and Gene Gabriel. Through April 4. Hollywood Playhouse, 2640 Washington St, Hollywood; 954-922-0404.

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