Shawn Elliott (top), Aasif Mandvi,and Melissa Friedman in Einstein's Gift
(Photo © Dixie Sheridan)
Shawn Elliott (top), Aasif Mandvi,
and Melissa Friedman in Einstein's Gift
(Photo © Dixie Sheridan)
Given that tickets to the Matthew Broderick-Nathan Lane yukfest at the Brooks Atkinson are truly scarcer than proverbial hen's teeth, theatergoers can take some cold comfort in the fact that there's yet another odd couple on the boards right now: Nobel Prize winners Albert Einstein and Friedrich "Fritz" Haber. Of course, there are a lot fewer laughs in Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen's intense drama Einstein's Gift than in Neil Simon's classic comedy, but the upside is that you'll actually learn something about two of the world's greatest scientists.

One of the things the audience learns early on is that even though the far more famous creator of the theory of relativity gets both the show's top billing and first entrance -- a rather unwieldy one, in which the excellent Shawn Elliott must amble for far too long on John McDermott's impressive, multipurpose set -- this is actually a fairly standard biodrama about Haber. The less-than-loveable scientific genius is a fine dramatic subject on many levels, especially since his life was something of a Greek tragedy. But though Thiessen's play is involving, it's rather talky, and it's hampered here by Ron Russell's ponderous, too-busy direction.

In a daring bit of nontraditional casting, Russell has chosen Obie winner Aasif Mandvi to play Haber, a German Jew who put ambition and loyalty to his country ahead of religion, family, and (sometimes) common sense. Fortunately, the gamble pays off: Mandvi delivers a strong, convincing performance. His scenes with Elliott, who portrays Einstein as the ultimate absent-minded professor, are the play's strongest. There is also some interesting interaction between Haber and his devoted research assistant, Otto (a very good James Wallert), who ultimately betrays him. Far less effective are Haber's awkward romantic moments with his first wife, the scientist Clara Immerwahr (an effective Melissa Friedman), and his second spouse, Lotta (played with way too much girlishness by Sarah Winkler).

Haber underwent a Christian baptism in 1905 (at the age of 37), believing that the German goverment would overlook his real religion. He was right up to a point, but eventually -- in 1934, to be exact -- he discovered that there was no escaping his birthright. Indeed, Haber's belief in Deutschland over Judaism is one of the key points of disagreement between him and Einstein, a man who renounced and then reclaimed his German citizenship but never forsook his religion.

The men's larger disagreement, which in many ways is the crux of Thiessen's work, concerns the essential nature of science. Einstein, as he repeatedly states, is primarily interested in thought and imagination, whereas Haber believes that science is useless if it's not practically applied. (His discovery of nitrogen fixation in the early 1900s led to the development of nitrogen fertilizer, which helped prevent starvation throughout the world and earned him the Nobel Prize.)

Unfortunately, not all of Haber's work had such a positive effect. In 1915, he created a chlorinated poison gas that killed many people during World War I but did little to bring the conflict to a quick conclusion, as he had errantly hoped. Worse, the Nazis eventually used the insecticide Zyklon B, which he helped develop, for mass killings in concentration camps. In part, it is this legacy that has caused Haber's name and accomplishments to be relegated to the dustbin of history.

The real-life Haber probably could not have foreseen that horrific development; yet, in Thiessen's depiction of his final visit with Einstein, Haber warns his longtime friend that the uses of science can't always be anticipated. This is followed by a scene in which Einstein writes his now famous letter to FDR about uranium being used to create the Atomic Bomb. Right after, that 1945 blast is simulated by lighting designers Elizabeth Gaines and Jeremy Morris Burke, providing a chilling finale for what was heretofore a somewhat chilly drama.