In Pulse Theatre’s Off-Broadway premiere of Strings Attached at Theatre Row, playwright Carole Buggé explores the uncertainties of physics and human behavior, which collide in a cathartic train ride from Cambridge to London. Loosely inspired by real-life events involving three esteemed physicists who conceived a new explanation of the Big Bang en route to a scholarly conference on String Theory in 1999, the dense mash-up – now set in the present, on a train trip to see Michael Frayn’s award-winning play Copenhagen (which has the similar theme of an actual meeting between two renowned physicists in 1941) – includes multiple realms of reality and hypothesis, with conflicts over love, loss, religion, and science, apparitions of three trailblazing scientists of the past in a time-space continuum, over-the-top humor and a running gag about changing a light bulb, quotations from classic writers, a movement-based segment with body percussion, and a parallel universe in which roles are reversed, all using the characters as embodiments of widely accepted postulates in physics. Sound like too much in 95 minutes? It is.
Directed by Alexa Kelly, the show combines the latest developments in science with the personal stories of competitiveness, a love triangle, and the loss of a child, with many of the contrived elements presented in a gratingly histrionic style, in an effort to trigger laughter and emotion through absurdism, existentialism, and the heightened theatricality of the themes and characters. Brian Richardson as the particle physicist Rory and Paul Schoeffler as the cosmologist George, both British, bring appropriate gravitas and commitment to their roles when they can, though the oddly interspersed movements and attempted jokes, and their unexpected temperamental outbursts (even though they were already aware of the situation but remained friends and colleagues) detract from their otherwise believable portrayals. It’s a problem with the stretches of the fictionalized script, not the actors. As their American wife and lover June, also a cosmologist, Robyne Parrish’s performance lacks the professional demeanor of the woman’s chosen field and the profound feeling of a grieving mother and an unfaithful spouse, often seeming more recitative, superficial, or overly dramatic than credible in her delivery.
The lead cast is supported by Jonathan Hadley, Russell Saylor, and Bonnie Black, each appearing in weirdly connected multiple roles that share an interest in the over-riding subject of physics and suggest other realms of reality. Hadley brings his outstanding skills to his parts as the train’s conductor and the 17th-century English multi-hyphenate Sir Isaac Newton (whose formulations and inventions were a driving factor in modern science), humming Bach’s “Minuet in G” and getting the tenor of the laughs with comedic control. Saylor as Max Planck (the German originator of quantum physics) and Black as the French Marie Curie (who conducted and died from her pioneering research on radioactivity) capture the importance of their work, the seriousness of their dedication, and the sage advice they give. They also manifest as strange passengers on the train, presented as derisive stereotypes of couples from the Ukraine and the American South, who have an unexpected knowledge and appreciation of science and an ability to control the motion of the three central figures.
A scenic design by Jessica Parks references both the cosmos and the train, as does Louis Lopardi’s sound. Lighting by Joyce Liao signals the shifts between the earthly world and the mysteries of life, science, and the universe, augmented by Katerina Vitaly’s videography. Costumes by Elena Vannoni are uneven; the period-style clothing of Newton, Planck, and Curie are indicative of their eras, but the modern outfit of June is marred by a distracting and ill-fitting top.
Strings Attached is an inherently intelligent but overloaded play that would work better for me if it toned down the explosive outbursts and exaggerated attempts at humor, to focus more seriously on the smart observations of the parallels in particle physics, cosmology, and humankind.
Running Time: Approximately 95 minutes, including an intermission.
Strings Attached plays through Saturday, October 1, 2022, at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $55, plus a $2.50 restoration fee and a $4.00 service fee), call (212) 714-2442, ext. 45, or go online. All sales are final. Everyone must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination and a photo ID to enter the building and must wear a mask at all times when inside.