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Anna Gunn gives an excellent performance as Marie Curie in Alan Alda's new play at the Geffen Playhouse.

Anna Gunn in Radiance
(© Michael Lamont)
Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie, the new play by Emmy winner Alan Alda premiering at Los Angeles' Geffen Playhouse, is an enjoyable evening that walks a fine line between education and soap opera, but never falls over into pedantics nor melodrama. He's aided in his mission by a wise director (Daniel Sullivan) and a passionate performance by Anna Gunn as two-time Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie.

Alda's sharply written script shines a light on the precarious nature of love and marriage, set against the backdrop of remarkable discoveries in science. He focuses on many aspects of Curie's life: the dual discoveries of polonium and radium; her struggles as a woman in a distinctively man's world; and her all-consuming but very apolitically-savvy relationship with a married man.

Indeed, the torrid affair between Curie and mathematician Paul Langevin (Dan Donohue), along with the hostile machinations of Langevin's wife, Jeanne (the deviously good Sarah Zimmerman) to ruin Curie's life, fills most of act two. It's a reminder that no one is immune to making unwise decisions, whether world famous scientist, movie star or President of the United States.

It's even more fascinating how the prejudice of the men in charge and the jealousy of the women behind the men could have wiped the courageous name Marie Curie easily off the history books. And, that's her greatest fear: that a Polish immigrant at the turn of the 20th century, is not able to have her words heard. In the posturing of Gunn, her resolve, her broken but penetrable English, she demands to be heard.

There is alo a delightfully droll performance by Hugo Armstrong as her mentor and friend, a compassionate but absent-minded professor. As his endearing wife, Natacha Roi is also a treat. John De Lancie, as Pierre Curie, has little time to bond with the audience and attempts no semblance of an accent, but his asides to Gunn are tender and clearly represent a loving husband. As two weasels in Curie's life, both a "mentor" and a mud-slinging journalist, Leonard Kelly-Young is appropriately slimy in the two roles.

The one curious performance belongs to Donohue. He comes off so impetuous and weak-willed, it's difficult to believe Curie's adoration for him. In act one, he's a horny puppy, practically humping her leg, and in act two, he's spineless and self-involved. It could be that Alda and director Sullivan want the audience to not side with Langevin, to question Curie's passion for him -- and if so, mission accomplished. It doesn't make for a likeable male protagonist, but it definitely makes for a complex female lead.

The functional sets (which change shape to allude to doors and windows) are given an impressionistic look by John Boesche's projections. Using grays and blacks that evoke charcoal etchings, they're provocative, particularly the rain-soaked streets of Paris and the murky shed where the Curies produce their work.

Costume designer Rita Ryack conveys the drab black dress armor that Madame Curie hides behind, while juxtaposing it with the lightly colored society lady wares of the two wives. The one time that Ryack puts Curie in a white frilly dress it's as appropriately shocking as the red dress worn by Bette Davis' Jezebel.