In an interview with the New York Times in October 1936, Albert Einstein said, "I do not play any games. There is no time for it. When I get through work I don't want anything which requires the working of the mind." In Claudia Barr's chamber play Go Kibbitz, we watch history's most mad-haired scientist being as good as his word: Hanging out with a couple of his cronies in an apartment in wartime Berlin, Einstein kvetches about money and noshes on pickles while his companions, Emanuel and Edward Lasker, play a round of the ancient Chinese board game Go.
It's a congenial scene. The Laskers -- both expert gamers (Emanuel was a long-reigning world chess champion and his cousin Edward, an engineer by profession, wrote definitive books about chess and Go) -- play on amiably. Einstein, who doesn't know the first thing about Go, observes (or "kibbitzes") from the touchline. Unlike chess, the strategic heart of Go lies not in the middle of the square board, but at the corners and along the edges. It is this strategic fact about the game that underpins Barr's play: While the three men, later joined by Einstein's wife, Elsa, prattle on about everything from bridge to Bing Crosby, conflict flickers at the margins of their cozy world.
Despite the fact that most drama is based on the clash of opposing viewpoints, Barr manages to hold our attention for almost an hour entirely through the affable banter of three middle-aged European gentlemen. The conflict in the piece operates at a much more subtle level. It's there in the game of Go itself, which at various stages during its 4,000-year history has been used as a tool for military strategy (Mao Zedong, for instance, required his generals to study it), and in director Andy Hamner's blocking: The Go rounds are played at the front of the acting area, with conversations about more sober matters, such as the fear of being captured by Nazis, relegated to the rear. It's also ingrained in the performances. For example, there's a tension nagging at the edges of Brian O'Connor's soft-spoken, smiley Einstein; and the frustration that Paul Gerrior brings to the role of Emanuel isn't just to do with being defeated at Go.
Interestingly, Barr's drama loses its focus when the conflict moves from the sidelines to the center. When a young Nazi police recruit and -- coincidentally -- former student of Einstein turns up, Einstein attempts to distract the young man with a conversation about theoretical physics. But the leisurely riffing that worked so well during the rest of the play feels stilted and unnatural here. Nicholas Marley's fresh-faced take on the police officer hardly strikes fear into our hearts. The game of Go is supposed to have turned into an urgent need to go, but it's impossible to believe that the adults in the room are scared off by the sweet kid in the uniform.
Speaking as a professional kibbitzer myself (theater critics, after all, spend much of their time waving their arms about at the touchline), I think Barr's play sparkles most at the margins: There's just something so compelling about watching this trio of brilliant individuals conversing about everyday things. And the lives of Einstein and the Laskers are gold mines for the mundane. Did you know, for example, that Emanuel Lasker was a fervent pigeon breeder? Or that an autographed copy of Edward Lasker's book Go and Gomoku that the author once gave to Einstein as a gift later showed up in a Baltimore used bookstore? Bring on the trivia, I say. It's where life is.
Through Sept. 18 at the Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Geary), Sixth Floor, S.F. Tickets are $9; call 564-4054.
In the Old Testament, Sarah allegedly gave birth to her son Isaac when she was 90. In more recent times, the likes of Madonna, Annette Bening, and Cherie Blair have turned pregnancy into a fashionable pursuit for women over 40. But as writer and co-director David Rouda so palpably illustrates in his comedy Sperm Warfare, becoming a parent when your ovaries are past their prime is not child's play: If the hormone drugs don't make you loopy, the hefty financial burden associated with undergoing in vitro fertilization will. Topping the pop charts, being nominated for an Oscar, or becoming first lady might very well be more attainable goals for an ambitious woman. It'll be quite some time before modern science manages to catch up with the Bible.
Ignorant of the odds of conceiving so late in the game, or (more likely) in denial about them, Deborah, a successful Sotheby's associate and passionate amateur artist, is pushing 40 and determined to get pregnant -- even if the process involves persuading her husband, Blake, to dispense his sperm into a small plastic cup. The start of Rouda's play sees Blake (Deborah's junior by five years) being shown into a room at a fertility clinic by an attractive young nurse. Gingerly, Blake paces around, unsure of what to do. He is resigned to his fate, a quasi-willing participant in his wife's grand scheme. "I feel like a science project," he laments with his pants down by his ankles amidst the chaos of sticky porno magazines and paper strewn haphazardly about the furniture and floor.
On one level, Sperm Warfare tells the story of a couple's struggle to produce a biological child. On another, the play is about the battle between science and nature, where science, from the very outset, is the loser. This message is most eloquently expressed through the contrast between the brute physicality of the performances versus the flimsy inadequacy of the clinical surroundings. Blake (Jon Gale) and Deborah (Anna Kristina) throw themselves about the set and on each other like a couple of cats in heat. Magazines, belt buckles, and tempers fly. The only thing that doesn't -- unfortunately for the couple -- is that all-important semen.