The Half-Life of Marie Curie Review: Science, Sexism and the Friendship between Two Pioneers

Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize twice, but she was also a woman; so the Nobel committee asked her not to show up at the ceremony.
We learn the specific reason why early on in this well-intentioned, workmanlike play by Lauren Gunderson about the friendship between two world-class women scientists who lived a century ago. But first each of the women gets a monologue to introduce herself and her major accomplishment: French/Polish physicist Marie Curie, discoverer of radium (portrayed by Francesca Faridany, who starred as the teacher Siobhan in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) and British electromagnetic engineer Hertha Ayrton, who stopped electric lights from their incessant hissing, (portrayed by Kate Mulgrew, Captain Janeway on “Star Trek: Voyager,” and Red in “Orange is the New Black.”)
Hertha has come to France to stop, in effect, the incessant hissing against the widow Marie, whose affair with a married colleague was causing such a scandal (in France no less!) that it was threatening her equilibrium, her livelihood, and her health. The scandal is the reason why they don’t want her at the Nobels – the first of several arresting examples in the play of the peculiarities of sexism in the sciences. “Men get to have sex all the time,” exclaims Hertha, an activist suffragette who has gone to jail repeatedly for her protests. “They don’t mind what Einstein does with his evenings.” (The play also includes a letter that Albert Einstein wrote to Curie to support her.)
Hertha bucks Marie up, and convinces her to come back to her home on the coast of England to recuperate.
Much of “The Half-Life of Marie Curie” takes place over that one summer in 1912, but the two characters do talk about their past and the playwright  scoots ahead to their future in a couple of scenes at the end. We learn of their lives and loves and their admirable accomplishments. Both, for example, contributed mightily to the war effort during World War I, Ayrton by using her knowledge of fluid dynamics to create fans that effectively blew the German’s poison gas away from the British trenches, Curie by inventing mobile X-rays – and driving them herself to the battlefront in order to treat wounded French soldiers!
“The Half-Life of Marie Curie” is a rare New York premiere for Lauren Gunderson, a prolific playwright who has had the distinction over the last few years of being the most produced playwright in non-profit regional theaters across the country, and who has made a specialty of dramatizing the lives of women scientists.
This play, a commission by Audible that is being presented at Audible’s live theater home at Minetta Lane Theater, is given a polished New York production. Rachel Hauck has designed a pleasing enough set that suggests a comfortable turn of the century beach house; costume designer Sarah Laux is period authentic; Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting design gives an air of mystery and drama, especially when Marie is holding up her radium pendant. Among the design team, only sound designer Darron L. West fell short, which is ironic, since sound is all that will remain when the play becomes an Audible audiobook. (I wondered whether this fate made Gunderson write it differently than had it been solely for the stage.)  The two pros in the cast do their best to bring to life this collection of fascinating tidbits of biography and science, which is simplified enough to be comprehensible to middle school students. It occurred to me that may be the age group for which this instructive play is best suited, despite some foul language and a few frolicsome lines about sex.
There is an attempt to get at what drove these pioneers, a stab at pathos, a few lovely metaphors and some intellectually stimulating dialogue:

Marie: Love. We don’t need it. Birds don’t need it. Trees, fish. All other life on Earth does just fine without it. Nature is perfectly heartless. So is science. That’s why I like it.

Hertha: I don’t like the idea of science being heartless. It takes heart to question the nature of things.

There are a couple of lines that will stay with me, although I’m not sure they were intended to be memorable. At one point, Hertha says to Marie: “I thought we agreed to leave the Radium in Paris.”

The cast, the design, the admirable intent are all incentives to want to enjoy “The Half-Life of Marie Curie” more than I actually did.

The Half-Life of Marie Curie
Minetta Lane Theater
Written by Lauren Gunderson; Directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch
Scenic design by Rachel Hauck, costume design by Sarah Laux, lighting design by Amith Chandrashaker, sound design by Darron L. West, dialect coach Kate Wilson, hair and wig design Charles G. LaPointe.
Cast: Kate Mulgrew and Francesca Faridany
Running time: 85 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $77 to $107
The Half Life of Marie Curie is on stage through December 22, 2019

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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