Published in The Link online on June 8, 2016
There are three versions of Atomic City, a new Fringe play directed by Sara Rodriguez.
The first is told by Lawrence Berg, a scientist working in Oak Ridge, the so-called atomic city, to develop the nuclear bomb in 1944. His version is stoic and aloof—a distinguished scientist trying to do his work and keep quiet, but caught up in his feelings for his assistant.
The second version is Dorothy Adams’, Lawrence’s assistant and a talented yet undervalued scientist in her own right. She is married to a soldier away at war, studied science at Hartford College for Women, and is after the bigger picture behind, well, everything.
The third version is yours—the audience’s. The collision of Lawrence and Dorothy’s perspectives never quite balances out, and where they bounce back and forth is the bread and butter of a bewildering and entertaining play.
While the beats of the story become clear by the end, you’re never certain how reliable any of what you’ve seen is. You’re not supposed to know the truth, really.
“There are some forces that are just bigger than us,” says Jeffrey Gandell, who plays Lawrence and is a writer of the play, along with Mariana Vial, the actress who plays Dorothy.
Their cognitively dissonant approach to storytelling took inspiration from the collective disparity over the development of the nuclear bomb.
“They knew they were creating something that could destroy the world… but you can’t stop scientific progress. It’s not even a choice.” — Jeffrey Gandell, actor and co-writer
“They knew they were creating something that could destroy the world,” Gandell goes on, “but you can’t stop scientific progress. It’s not even a choice.”
And so, the battling narratives grapple with how to deal with that non-choice. The overarching tension of the play—who’s story is the real story—plays out in scenes that are repeated, narrated in turn by each character with details and driving forces switched.
Did Dorothy try to become Lawrence’s assistant? Did Lawrence try and recruit Dorothy? Or does it not matter which is true, because she becomes his assistant anyway?
Inside of the scenes themselves, Lawrence and Dorothy snipe snappily. “You’re the one who said I’m important,” Lawrence says in one scene, after Dorothy calls him arrogant.
“You’re the one who agreed,” she shoots back.
Gandell and Vial’s comedic chops are vital to the rhythm and pace of the play. The two are long-term improvisational comedy partners, who met three years ago improvising a Law & Order episode—something they still do.
“In improv you do want to have sincere moments,” Vial says. “You don’t ever just want to play for the laughs. You want to play for what is the character and what is the story.”
Those priorities keep the tone of the play light, but sincere. In one of the play’s defter turns, a grand reveal is immediately followed by a joke, but one that reveals what the characters really want.
“You’re joking,” Dorothy says in disbelief at the purpose of their research: uranium enrichment.
“You think my jokes are funny?” Lawrence replies happily.
While the back-and-forth narration risks being contrived, it never feels stale thanks to the pair’s comedic sensibilities. This is their first scripted show together after three years of performing improv—and they nail it.
“You know in cartoons, when somebody is trying to go across an empty space and they just put something and jump on it and put something and jump on it?” Vial asks. “That’s how improv feels, you’re building as you go, but it still has a shape and a path. A play has a path already, but you have to still make it feel natural and fresh and new.”
Of course, Gandell and Vial’s improvisational abilities appear in more spontaneous ways, too. At one point, Dorothy asks Lawrence for a pencil.
“Can you pass me the—” Dorothy says. Lawrence then throws it off the table, by accident. “Apparently not.”
The strength of the play lies in its ability to be funny without losing its message. The walls of the tiny theatre—more of a room with a table and chalkboard in the middle—are lined with period propaganda warning against the dangers of their work being exposed. They are doing something dangerous here, fun as it is.
Plus, playing into the play’s notions of limited perspective, all of the propaganda posters advocate for protecting the lives of little white children, with no regard to the Japanese children that would die in the atomic explosion, the product of all of the secrecy.
Since his visit to Hiroshima in 2011, Gandell has been “kind of just a little bit obsessed with the atomic bomb.” Modern audiences should have nuclear weapons on the mind, he says, and this is a way to get them thinking about it.
Atomic City just happens to be a singularly charming way to ponder the destruction of all life on Earth.
Atomic City / Playing until June 19 / Freestanding Room (4324 St. Laurent Blvd. #300) / Times vary / $12.00