A COMEDY OF IDEAS
by Ronald Gross
New York Theater Buying Guide [newsletter]
Line: Our highest recommendation! An exhilarating “comedy of ideas”
vividly enacting the forty-year love/hate relationship between Bertrand
Russell and his most famous student, Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Can the lifelong philosophical arm-wrestling between two icons of modern
western philosophy, be meaningful in our momentous moment? And can that
struggle make an exceedingly entertaining play?
This wondrous work delivers YESs to those questions, culminating in one
of the characters speaking on the BBC to the largest world-wide audience
in the history of cogitation, declaring: "When politicians pass a
law, the purpose is to keep the holders of power happy. When a scientist
conducts an experiment, the purpose is not to make anyone happy, but to
discover the truth. There is no other source of truth; the alternative
to science… is fiction."
Playwright and philosophy professor Douglas Lakey has discerned the roots
of our current contention between truth and bullshit, in the entwined
lives and philosophies of these two avatars of modernism from their first
meeting at Cambridge in 1911, when Russell was nearly 40 and Wittgenstein
was 21, to Wittgenstein's death in 1951. A play on such characters might
seem to be a drama of philosophical ideas, but this one is rooted in a
pointedly personal drama that plays out at many levels.
This intellectual Odd Couple couldn’t be more different –
except when they meet in the realm of pure mathematics, as they do in
a climactic scene in the wee hours of a morning when Ludwig interrupts
Bertie’s sleep for an impromptu seminar.
Russell is heterosexual, hedonistic and agnostic; Wittgenstein is puritanical,
gay and Jewish. Russell is an imprisoned pacifist; Wittgenstein a decorated
combat soldier. Wittgenstein is intensely religious; Russell mocks religion
from first to last.
Academically, they start out together as proponents of a modernism rooted
in logic, mathematics and science. Wittgenstein creates a modernist book,
and then designs a modernist house, each with as many sharp angles as
a painting by Mondrian.
But it all goes wrong in 1926, when Wittgenstein wakes up to a post-modern,
post-truth world of anti-Semitism, Naziism, and irrationality (two of
his brothers committed suicide).
Ludwig regards Bertie as his "mental father," but their relationship
has elements of rivalry. At one point, Russel declares, "Damn it,
I will never catch up with him." Their clashes take many comic turns,
as when Russell is unable to prove to Wittgenstein that there is no rhinoceros
in the room. (Which calls-forward aptly to Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros,
which is so tellingly apt to our situation.)
Stan Buturla bestrides the stage like the intellectual colossus that Russell
was. Connor Bond delivers an agonized, brilliant, and tragic as Wittgenstein.
Pat Dwyer is a subtle and nuanced Cambridge philosopher G.E. Moore. Alyssa
Simon enchants as Lady Ottoline Morrell (Russell's paramour). Daniel Yaiullo
has a beautiful scene as David Pinsent (Wittgenstein's undergrad lover).
Harrington directs with an extraordinary orchestration of a simple but
brilliant set and a corps of on-stage movers and shakers. Special kudos
for the perfect “musical score” throughout, including Brahms,
Bach, Vivaldi, Delibes, then ringing in Satie, Antheil, and Schonberg
as modernism dawns.
The piece is a successor to TNC's hit production last season of "Arendt-Heidegger:
A Love Story," which was also written by Lackey and directed by Harrington.
That play dramatized the troubling, lifelong affair between Zionist Hannah
Arendt and Nazi sympathizing philosopher Martin Heidegger.
And a boisterous BRAVO! to the ever-renewing commitment to creativity
of Crystal Field and her angels at the Theater for the New City.
September 26 to October
Theater for the New City
155 First Ave (between 9th and 10th Sts.)
Thurs - Sat at 8:00 PM, Sun at 3:00 PM
$15 general admission
Box office: (212) 254-1109
*-appears courtesy of Actors Equity Association