In 1999, three physicists took a train from Cambridge to London, and in their discussion on that hour-long trip came up with a new theory about the origin of the universe, an alternate view of the Big Bang. The playwright and poet Carole Buggé was inspired by that consequential train ride to write “Strings Attached,” which is being presented at Theatre Row through October 1st.
The play uses the narrative frame of the train trip to introduce various concepts in physics in a largely unintimidating way, with varying degrees of clarity. It also attempts to connect physics with everyday life, through metaphor, sometimes effectively. But in an apparent effort to make a play about science more palatable for the layman, “Strings Attached” weighs that train trip down with all manner of contrivance, ranging from clever to corny to cringeworthy.
The three male physicists on the 1999 train (the Americans Burt Ovrut and Paul Steinhardt; and the South African Neil Turok) have been turned into two cosmologists who are married to one another – June, who’s American (Robynne Parrish) and George, who’s English (Paul Schoeffler) – and English particular physicist Rory (Brian Richardson), who is best friends with George and sleeping with June. Once George discovers the affair, he makes a scientific analogy:
“She is rather like an electron being shared by two atoms. So that makes the three of us an odd kind of molecule – voila, chemistry in action!”
While riding in the plush and spacious train compartment (designed by Jessica Parks), George, June and Rory are each visited by a different pioneering physicist of the past — Sir Isaac Newton (Jonathan Hadley), Marie Curie (Bonnie Black), and Max Planck (Russell Saylor), respectively – with enlightening conversation about science, but as much that is personal (and Sir Isaac Newton in particular likes to joke around.) Two couples also visit the compartment, one from Ukraine, the other apparently from American hillbilly country. (both couples played by Black and Saylor.) Director Alexa Kelly makes misguided choices with these actors; their hammy portrayals are meant to be comic but come off as offensive stereotypes.
There are also throughout the play a variety of light bulb jokes involving physicists, a goofy string that grows on you.
A clue to what Buggé is trying to accomplish may be found in the reason why those three physicists were taking that train trip in 1999 from a conference they were attending in Cambridge on string theory. It was to see “Copenhagen” a play by Michael Frayn, which was at the National Theatre at the time. It looks as if Buggé is trying to use Frayn’s play as a model.
Like Buggé’s play, Frayn’s is inspired by a true story — the 1941 meeting that took place in the Danish city of Copenhagen between German physicist Werner Heisenberg and his former professor, the half-Jewish Dutch physicist Niels Bohr. Like Buggé’s play, Frayn’s focuses on three characters (he added Bohr’s wife.) The three characters of “Copenhagen” engage in a wide-ranging conversation that takes in matters way beyond just the scientific, including the personal, such as the loss of a child. The three characters in “Strings Attached” are shown doing the same thing, even including the loss of a child; George and June’s only son was killed in a train crash.
And like Frayn, Buggé tries to tie it all together, the personal and the scientific. Much is made of June’s grief at the death of her child. It’s sometimes used to spark a discussion over the attempt (or refusal) of individual scientists to reconcile science and religion, but also for both Planck and Curie to talk about the tragic deaths of family members in their own lives
At one point, June provides an elaborate analogy between her guilt at her adultery and the “famous double slit experiment” that illustrates the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which she carefully and clearly explains, even using a diagram (which is too lengthy to quote in its entirety here.) “We can’t speak of an electron being both a wave and a particle, but of being either a wave or a particle at any given moment – depending on whether or not there’s an observer,” she concludes. “Maybe the electron has a memory of itself as a wave when we perceive it as a particle, but we can only see it at that moment in time.” All of this leads up to: “I don’t even have a memory of myself as a good person. I can only see who I am now.”
One can look at this lengthy analogy as a stretch, but still be grateful for the memorable illumination of a well-known phenomenon in physics.
A conversation at the end of Act 1 about parallel universes is apparently meant to prepare us for a replay in Act 2 of scenes from Act 1 with a change in the relationship of the three characters, which wasn’t confusing, but didn’t do much for me.
“Strings Attached” ends with Rory, George and June talking out their modification of Big Bang while the three dead scientists look on. I confess that I had trouble following what they were saying, but it was certainly clearer than what I’ve read elsewhere: During the trip from Cambridge to London, Burt Ovrut, Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok “hammered out their ‘ekpyrotic’* theory of the origin of the universe, in which the Big Bang is caused by a collision between the extradimensional ‘branes’‡ that appear in string theory.”
At Theatre Row through October 1, 2022
Running time: 105 minutes including one intermission
Written by Carole Buggé
Directed by Alexa Kelly
Scenic design by Jessica Parks, lighting design by Joyce Liao, costume design Elena Vannoni, sound design by Louis Lopardi
Cast: Robynne Parrish as June, Brian Richardson as Rory, Paul Schoeffler as George, Bonnie Black as Marie Curie, Ukrainian woman and American woman, Jonathan Hadley as Sir Isaac Newton, conductor, Russell Saylor Max Planck, Ukrainian man, American man.
Photographs by John Quilty
*ekpyrotic: Of or relating to a cosmological theory proposing that the known universe originated in the collision of two other three-dimensional universes traveling in a hidden fourth dimension.
‡branes: dynamical objects which can propagate through spacetime according to the rules of quantum mechanics…Brane cosmology refers to several theories in particle physics and cosmology related to string theory, superstring theory and M-theory.