Dallas — Veteran broadcaster, actor and playwright Mark Oristano has a family connection to world-changing physicist Albert Einstein, so the famously bushy-haired scientist has always been in the back of his mind. After reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein, Oristano considered the characters of Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the men behind the creation of the atomic bomb, for a play set at Los Alamos.
After several readings and development, The Impact of the Gadget on Civilization has come to a local stage. Or rather, it was filmed on a local stage (at the Addison Theatre Center) for an online production for Imprint Theatrework, to begin streaming on Sept. 17, for two weeks. A previous Oristano play, And Crown Thy Good: A True Story of 9/11 was a local in the late 2000’s.
The Impact of the Gadget on Civilization is directed by Ashley H. White, and features T.A. Taylor as Einstein, Evan Michael Woods as Einstein, and David Saldivar as a third character. TheaterJones interviewed Oristano to discuss the play, the filming process, and his connection to Einstein.
TheaterJones: Where and when did the idea for a play involving Einstein and Oppenheimer begin, and how did the concept develop or change over the past two years since you first wrote it and have had readings?
Knowing of my family history with Einstein, he’s always been a sort of presence. Three years ago I read Walter Isaacson’s Einstein, and I began to wonder why this physics genius wasn’t involved in the Manhattan Project that built the bomb. I know part of it was his lack of a top security clearance because of his pacifist views. So, I just wondered what if he somehow managed to wangle his way into Los Alamos and talk with Oppenheimer about the bomb.
The concept changed very little over time. The honing of characters to make certain they were true to form was always changing. But from the start it was about Einstein going to Los Alamos (which he never did) and seeing Oppenheimer. There is a mathematical puzzle at the end of the play that initially was a chess game. That’s about the biggest change.
I understand that your family has connections to Einstein?
My maternal grandfather, Herbert Maass, Sr., was a prominent Wall Street attorney from the 20’s to the 50’s. He was one of several people instrumental in founding and building the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. (not connected to the University.) And he was also one of the people responsible for bringing Einstein out of Nazi Germany to the U.S. in 1933. There was something of a competition for Einstein between countries and between universities; he was quite a prize. He was president of the Institute from 1942-1949, and Chairman of the Board from 1946-1957.
The meeting in your play was fictional, but Einstein and Oppenheimer were colleagues and were photographed together. Is there a record of what they actually said to each other, and are their words used in your play?
They were colleagues at the Institute after the war when Einstein was a resident scholar and Oppenheimer was the director. Before the war, they first met at Berkeley in the early 30’s when Oppenheimer was teaching there and Einstein was on his first tour of the U.S. About 20 percent of Einstein’s dialogue in the play is from his actual writings, and about 10 percent of Oppie’s. The rest is from my fertile little brain.
How does the third, fictional character figure in, without spoiling?
Corporal Goodman, a security MP at Los Alamos (and entirely fictional) is used by Einstein late in the play to drive home a point to Oppie about obedience.
Tell me about connecting with Imprint and deciding to film the play.
I was in the first Imprint production, Glengarry Glen Ross, so I knew everybody. I had done one staged reading and one private reading of the play before the COVID onset. After the virus shut everything down, I sent [Imprint artistic director] Ashley White the script and asked her what she thought. Only three characters. One set. the board agreed and off we went.
When and where did you film it, and how were COVID safety protocols observed?
We filmed two weeks ago on the main stage that WaterTower Theatre uses [at the Addison Theatre Center]. Everybody wore masks except the actors when acting. Nobody got close to anybody. Hand sanitizer was everywhere. Ashley was very strict about it. In fact, I added a line early in the play when the two first meet. Oppie comes into his office, sees Einstein, and Einstein starts to move toward him. Oppie says, “Better not get too close, professor, I may be…” and Einstein says, “Glowing?"
What were the challenges of producing a play in this manner?
It was difficult. Rehearsing on Zoom is terribly limiting. Mostly because you don’t have any real, human interaction. Everything is two-dimensional. It’s almost impossible to block a scene on a computer, either. Then, in the theater, it’s unreal because you can’t sit around and swap stories or go out to eat after rehearsal. Everybody has to be distant. But at least we made some theater.
What does the play say about our current times?
It says quite a bit, but I’d rather not elaborate on that, because it would be like telling the audience what to think.
Anything else to add?
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» Purchase tickets for the online production here.