Ford’s Theater play chronicles the friendship between Albert Einstein and Marian Anderson
“Einstein! exclaims Christopher Bloch, answering the phone in Deborah Brevoort’s instructive but overly sweet comedy-drama “My Lord, What a Night.” Yes, it’s that Einstein that Bloch portrays as an affable genius who hides Swiss chocolates in his coffee tables and declares, “We humans are pretty shtoopid!”
Set in the late 1930s in Albert Einstein’s home in Princeton, NJ, Brevoort’s 100-minute piece is about the real-life mutual admiration society between two virtuosos, the maestro of theoretical physics and revered contralto Marian Anderson. . The play, under the direction of Sheldon Epps at Ford’s Theater, culminates in one of the seminal events of the civil rights struggle: Anderson’s historic 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial, a breakthrough for a black performer who, despite his praise, suffered the outrage of Jim Crow’s Racism.
You may not have known that these two titans of their time maintained a friendship; when it comes to exploring the contours of this relationship, Brevoort deserves applause for bringing it to public attention. But the outlines are all we really get in this stereotypical exercise that continually seeks to educate us on the parallels between the oppression of blacks and Jews, in this country and simultaneously in Nazi Germany.
“My Lord, What a Night” joins a series of other pioneering shows rebooting in-person theater in the Washington area, following the long pandemic-enforced drought. Arena Stadium”Toni Stone’, Shakespeare Theater Company’s ‘The Amen Corner’ and Round House Theater’s ‘Quixote Nuevo’ were among those who stepped forward last month to usher in the live performance renaissance – at a time when ticket sales are slow and theaters are exceptionally difficult to fill.
The Woolly Mammoth Theater, too, embarked on a reboot with “Teenage Dick,” a reasonably puzzling comedy that transposes “Richard III” to an American high school. For all these companies, an arduous season of returning theatergoers is coming. If nothing else, their welcome picks underscore an effort to respond to calls for fairer representation. It’s not that the answer was absent before the pandemic. But it should be noted that artists of color and people with disabilities feature prominently in all of these productions. A collective desire for permanent change is perhaps taking hold.
At Ford, the theme is the longstanding alliance between blacks and Jews, a bond that has been torn and tested over time. In this biodrama, the focus is on racial justice activist Mary Church Terrell’s (convincingly played by Franchelle Stewart Dorn) attempt to persuade a reluctant Anderson (Felicia Curry) to come forward about her own humiliating treatment. Einstein – portrayed here as such an independent-minded liberal that he infuriates his nervous Jewish superior (Michael Russotto) at the Institute for Advanced Study – fuels Anderson’s discontent by taking Terrell’s side.
Curry, possessing a melodious singing voice (which she is allowed to demonstrate) spends much of the room looking worried. She and Bloch are polished actors who are here afflicted with icon portrayal syndrome, a peculiar disease whose symptoms include a tendency to grab onto an ennobling character trait and cling to it for life. Bloch’s withdrawal is a mischievous smile, a telltale sign of Einstein’s decency; Curry is that downcast stare that signals his deep ambivalence, the war in his soul between his knowledge of the responsibility his fame and talent bestow on him and his desire not to rock the boat.
One would have wished that the director and the playwright had given them greater latitude to use more of themselves in their performances and less of the material that composes their monuments. Russotto and especially Dorn are more successful, as the game’s corner pilots. Taking place over two nights, two years apart, the play sees Dorn’s Terrell and Russotto’s Abraham Flexner arriving unannounced at the home of ‘Einstein, who invited Anderson to stay with him at Princeton. The setting dominated by Meghan Raham’s books and Karen Perry’s period costumes aptly accessorize the warmer tones of the evening.
Dorn and Russotto are tasked with presenting the realities of a society that, somewhat parallel, restricts both blacks and Jews. Dorn, for sure, gives us a sonic portrait of a black woman who had to learn perseverance because the world always underestimated her. The important points are all underscored in an uplifting drama that yet feels loaded with good intentions.
With characteristic irreverence, Woolly Mammoth returned to the stage with a play full of characters that are anything but mainstream. Chief among them in “Teenage Dick”: a dastardly antagonist with cerebral palsy and a wise sidekick in a wheelchair. And why the hell not? Mike Lew’s unstereotypical comedy, directed by the confident Moritz von Stuelpnagel, is a riff on tough high school life – though it does use the idea of a tumultuous class election as its centerpiece a bit banal. (“Election” with Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick did it earlier, and better.)
Gregg Mozgala has the marquee role here, as a handicapped modern-day Richard who gushes Shakespeare and seeks to topple his lowly place in the school’s pecking order with a malevolence-filled campaign to win the election. It’s nice to see a juicy role for an actor with a disability who will hopefully have many more such opportunities. Mozgala does a dandy job. But it’s another disabled actor, Shannon DeVido as a jaded, sex-obsessed college student who talks about telling the truth from a wheelchair, that provides the evening’s sarcastic flair. On this occasion, a shoutout goes to the writer who came up with such a mature role for DeVido — and everyone who played a part in casting him.
My Lord, what a night, by Deborah Brevoort. Directed by Sheldon Epps. Together, Meghan Raham; costumes, Karen Perry; lighting, Max Doolittle; sound, John Gromada; projections, Clint Allen. About 100 minutes. $18 to $48. Through October 24 at Ford’s Theater, 511 10th St. NW. 202-347-4833. fords.org.
teen cock, by Mike Lew. Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel. Together, Wilson Chin; costumes, Kelsey Hunt; lighting, Amith Chandrashaker; sound, Palmer Hefferan. With Emily Townley, Portland Thomas, Zurin Villanueva, Louis Reyes McWilliams. About 100 minutes. $17 to $81. Through October 17 at the Woolly Mammoth Theater, 641 D St. NW. 202-393-3939. woollymammoth.net.