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Quantum Love 

Sex, romance, and physics at the Magic Theatre

Wednesday, Nov 14 2001
When playwrights flirt with physics, lately, for some reason, they also deal with ultimates: love, God, the meaning of life. This trend is no doubt Stephen Hawking's fault. At least since his best-selling A Brief History of Time dangled the promise of a Grand Unified Theory before a worldwide audience in 1988, there has been a steady trickle of plays (and novels) attempting to fill the Western spiritual vacuum with some scientific theory or another, usually from quantum physics. Schrödinger's Girlfriend belongs in this category. It's about love and sex as well as Erwin Schrödinger's efforts to solve the wave-particle conundrum in the nature of light.

The play starts in 1925, with Schrödinger (Mark Rafael Truitt) puzzling over the light problem in his Zurich apartment. His wife (Beth Wilmurt) is a sexually eager hausfrau who fails to turn him on. He travels to Berlin for a conference and meets a sophisticated cabaret singer named Hansi Haas (Delia MacDougall), who not only turns him on but also helps him discover a famous equation. She has this effect on a lot of physicists. Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Niels Bohr, and Werner Heisenberg have all visited Hansi's boudoir, in the scheme of the play, and it seems that her analytical mind as well as her sexual charms underlie their contributions to science. You might call her the (fictional) muse of 20th-century physics. Hansi is a fickle coquette who looks and behaves like Lola Lola, Marlene Dietrich's vamp in The Blue Angel.

In real life, Schrödinger did find an equation for light by 1926; he also contrived a famous thought experiment to express the central problem of subatomic theory. Briefly: You can't observe the state of an atom (i.e., whether it's stable or unstable) without firing a particle at it -- say, a bit of light -- which automatically changes the state of the atom. Therefore, the state is always probable, never exact. Schrödinger wittily compared the problem to a cat trapped in a closed box with a fragile bottle of deadly poison, which has to break as soon as the box is opened. It might also break before the box is opened -- so is the cat alive or dead? I've summarized drastically, but the paradox in observing subatomic stuff led Schrödinger to his theory of the nature of light.

Hansi, in the play, is like Schrödinger's cat: a contradictory creature who can't be studied objectively. Schrödinger tries to resist her, but can't. Their affair leads him to a groundbreaking equation, but it's also a trick set up by his wife, who has traveled to Berlin in disguise to convince Schrödinger that he belongs at home with her. Matthew Wells has filled his play with jokes about uncertainty, and one of the funniest is Wilmurt's double role as Schrödinger's hausfrau and a Brooklyn-accented flapper (lifted from a Louise Brooks movie) named Lulu, who hangs around Hansi at the cabaret. Lulu, of course, is the wife, spying on Schrödinger. In one scene she says, "Don't talk to me like I'm not in ze room, Erwin." Wilmurt does a strong, hammy job with both voices, and manages the quantum trick of acting sexy as well as amusing.

The other good joke is Andrew Hurteau, as Heisenberg. He blows on- and offstage like an ill wind, in a rumpled blazer and slacks, hair wild and shirt untucked. (Heisenberg, of course, had his own uncertainty principle to express the problem of subatomic physics.) "Heisenberg, what are you doing here?" Hansi asks when he first comes on. "I'm not here," he says. Later Hansi says, "As far as I'm concerned, Heisenberg does not exist." And so on. Hurteau has done recent stints as Jerry in The Zoo Story and Gunner, the crazed clerk, in Shaw's Misalliance, so he's well-prepared for this kind of role. The only problem I see is that he may end up typecast as a sweaty lunatic staring at some saner citizen along the ridge of his upturned, quivering nose.

The strongest performance in Schrödinger is MacDougall's, as Hansi, with her seamless German accent and her curly blond wig. She sings or leads all the songs (did I mention there are songs?) in a pitch-perfect, tremulous voice, and finds a Dietrich-style heat and weariness I've never seen in her before. Other actors do indifferent work, but Kenn Watt has directed the whole show with a sure, intelligent hand.

Schrödinger is not drama: The story gets lost in a welter of comic science lessons and vaudevillian shtick. But it might represent a new subgenre of theater -- let's call it a "cabaret of ideas" -- descended from Brecht. The ideas, happily, are playful. Wells avoids the problem of God and limits himself to riffs on sex and love, which, for a writer dealing with physics, shows some welcome restraint.


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