Wednesday, December 4, 2019

123 (2019-2020): Review: THE HALF-LIFE OF MARIE CURIE (seen December 3, 2019)

“Science, Suffrage, and Scandal”

Lauren Gunderson is a young playwright known for being perhaps the most produced American playwright of recent years, despite barely any of her plays being seen in New York; the only one I’ve seen, at any rate, is Bauer. She is likely to see her status remain stable when regional companies—especially those with missions geared toward middle and high school kids—get their hands on The Half-Life of Marie Curie, a two-hander now being produced by Audible at the Minetta Lane. 

Not that it’s a breakthrough play, or even a memorable one, by any means. What it is, though, is a well-crafted, 90-minute, informational dramatization of the friendship of two brilliant women of the early 20th century, scientists who made their mark in the face of great resistance from the patriarchy.   
Francesca Faridany. All photos: Joan Marcus.
These women—the entire dramatis personae of Gunderson’s drama—are Marie Curie (1867-1934) and Hertha Ayrton (née Phoebe Sarah Marks, 1854-1923). The former (Francesca Faridany, Black Panther), familiarly known as Madame Curie, was a Polish-born Frdench physicist and chemist who was not only the first woman to win a Nobel Prize but the first person, regardless of gender, to win a second, a feat that remains unmatched. Equally unusual is that each was awarded in a different field, physics and chemistry.
Kate Mulgrew.
Hertha (Kate Mulgrew, Orange Is the New Black), born in Sussex, England, to a Jewish family, was an outstanding physicist as well as an electrical engineer, being the first woman to become a fellow of the Royal Society. She was also a leading suffragette, who even spent time (like her daughter, Barbara) in prison for her protest activities.

Both women also made invaluable contributions to the Allies during World War I.

The Half-Life of Marie Curie, set mainly between 1911 and 1914, provides enough scientific background to highlight, in accessible terms, the women’s accomplishments, but is principally concerned with charting their strong friendship. It leans toward being hagiographically didactic, but serves nicely to humanize these women, who spend most of their time conversing not so much about their scientific preoccupations—electric arc lighting, the motion of sand and water ripples, the fanning away of poison gas, radium, x-rays, radioactivity, and so on—but about the obstacles they overcame to fulfill their destinies. 

This was a world where women still could not vote, where married women were considered ineligible to become fellows of the Royal Society, and where the Nobel Prize people asked Marie not to show up in person to receive her award.
Francesca Faridany, Kate Mulgrew.
Of primary dramatic concern is Hertha’s deployment of her earth-motherly warmth, spiced with an occasional “shit,” to support Marie, whose husband, Pierre Curie, died in 1906, when contemporary French society turned against her when her affair with the married (but estranged) scientist, Paul Langevin, was made public. The scandal, which had anti-Semitic elements, even though Marie was not Jewish, even drove crowds to vilify her outside her house. Much of the play concerns Marie’s depression, including her traveling to England to spend the summer of 1912 with Hertha in hopes of lifting the cloud that weighed on her. 
Francesca Faridany.

As often in biodramas seeking to include as many biographical details as possible, Gunderson turns now and then from conventional dialogue to poetic rumination to direct address, sometimes in the first person, as in this summing up by Marie of her later career:

I work and work. I travel the world. The girls come with me. The American president hosts me. I am a member of the League of Nations with Einstein. The Radium Institute grows and grows. I am still sick, always sick, but I accept this life because it is mine. Because you gave it back to me.  

Kate Mulgrew, Francesca Faridany.
By and large, The Half-Life of Marie Curie is a thoughtful, educational (the theatre was filled with high schoolers), occasionally humorous (for example, Hertha begs Marie for details of her sex with Paul), but barely dramatic look at the human side of two female pioneers. One of them, Marie, is emotionally damaged, proud, and not always ready to listen to reason, as when Hertha warns the pain-racked Marie that the glowing vial of radium she carries as a keepsake is dangerous to her health. The other, Hertha, is gregarious, aggressively no-nonsense, and even coarse, but she’s the friend every troubled soul love to have. 

The writing provides both stars with an incentive for first-class emoting, and both Faridany (using a heavy French accent) and Mulgrew (her accent British posh)—dressed by Sarah Laux in period-perfect clothes—deliver, although Faridany’s eternally self-pitying Marie eventually starts to grate. Gaye Taylor Upchurch directs them efficiently enough on Rachel Hauck’s sparsely furnished, elegant set, backed by dominating, translucent, latticework wall, and expertly lit by Amith Chandrashaker.
Kate Mulgrew, Francesca Faridany.
The Half-Life of Marie Curie doesn’t glow as steadily as Marie’s precious vial but it seems likely to have more than a half-life in the American theatre. 
Francesca Faridany, Kate Mulgrew.
A final note: present at the Minetta Lane the night I went was Alan Alda, the actor, who wrote a play called Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie in 2011. An interview with him about the play is in this link.
Francesca Faridany.

Minetta Lane Theatre
18 Minetta Lane, NYC
Through December 22