Hyperbole and inexplicable accents abound in Sheri Graubert's new bio-play Tesla, now making its U.S. premiere at Theatre 80 St. Marks. For a revolutionary scientist whose life ended in despair and bankruptcy at the New Yorker Hotel in the company of a flock of pigeons, Graubert and director Sanja Bestic miss nearly every opportunity to transform Nikola Tesla's eccentric life into an interesting piece of theater.
The plot blasts through the major check points in Tesla's career, from his combative working relationship with Thomas Edison (played by Tom Cappadona) — after putting his alternating current technology in direct competition with Edison's direct current — to his professional encounters with George Westinghouse (Alessandro Colla), Mark Twain (also played by Colla), and J.P. Morgan, played by Adam Pagdon, one of the only supporting actors to refrain from turning his historical character into a cartoon. Jeff Solomon, however, shows flashes of comedic ability as the clown-like Guglielmo Marconi whose patent battles with Tesla over radio technology are depicted through sporadic one-sided conversations with an invisible patent office. Unfortunately, after his fifth appearance, he shifts from a source of comic relief to a harsh lesson about why the rule of three should never be broken. Topping off the plot smorgasbord are occasional cameos by an unexplained character named Katherine (a Google search shows her to be the wife of Tesla's friend Robert Underwood Johnson), played by the capable Samantha Slater. She drops hints of unrequited love between Tesla and herself, though her nonexistent storyline is never resolved.
Jack Dimich and James Lee Taylor share the title role: Dimich plays an older, embittered Tesla who, in the twilight of his life, reflects on his days as a young, naïve inventor. He often yells dramatic warnings of "Don't do it, Nikola!" to his remembered self in a guttural Eastern-European accent from his permanent post in an armchair near the back of the stage. The studly Taylor serves as this remembered self, reenacting the downward spiral of Tesla's career as it unfolds — though he prefers to do it in a British accent. Fortunately, Dimich and Taylor don coordinated matching Tesla mustaches in anticipation of this potential accent confusion.
While Graubert's dialogue offers little beyond a timeline of historical events, Bestic's direction removes what little potential the play has to achieve any kind of depth. Actors engage in dialogue with one another either by directly facing the audience or by staring at the back of their scene partner's head — that is, until the scene partner turns around and the first actor must quickly evade eye contact, lest he turn to stone.
Taylor's one-dimensional portrayal of Tesla as an eager young lad with a perpetually oblivious smile illustrates nothing about his character's transformation from an innocent boy to the pessimistic man we see presiding from the back of the stage. Only near the end of the play, after Tesla loses his claim to several patents and the majority of his scientific research is destroyed in a fire (dramatized by a video projection of flames and the narration: "Tesla lost everything in a fire") does he exchange the grin for a menacing glare.
In this glare, we finally see a glimpse of the demoralized older Tesla, whom Dimich depicts as a vengeful comic book hero. He sits in his hotel room (in his armchair, of course), receiving daily news about World War II and Hitler's attacks on Belgrade from a young bellhop named Luka (played by Luka Mijatovic). Tesla responds to these tragic news reports with statements like "My particle beam could have stopped this!" — a sentence that should only be uttered in high-budget science fiction films or Christopher Guest mockumentaries.
A native of Belgrade herself, Bestic may be too close to the subject matter to lend an objective eye to the project. She clearly holds Nikola Tesla and his contributions to science in high regard, but rather than creating a fitting tribute to this Serbian icon, she presents an unabashedly biased play that could double as a sales pitch for potential converts to the Church of Tesla. Though after seeing this play, I don't think there will be many takers.