From the clever double entendre title to its fantastical involvement of three famous long dead physicists, Carole Buggé’s Strings Attached tries very hard to rise out of the morass what is basically a sad love triangle but is ultimately overwhelmed by frippery and cliché.
A black front curtain emblazoned with stars, planets and fancy equations, all floating about almost imperceptibly, greets the audience. It disappears to reveal a posh sitting room on a train, albeit one that probably never existed on an actual British one. The amusingly detailed sets are by Jessica Parks.
June (an elegant, layered Robyne Parrish) is a 40-something American cosmologist married to George (Paul Schoeffler, outwardly strong but quaking inside), another 40-something cosmologist, an Englishman with good breeding. She has had an affair with formerly working class Rory (Brian Richardson, sporting a brilliant, but fragile façade), also in the same age range, a particle physicist with a particularly keen talent for mathematics.
In the first act, the three are off to London to see Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, also a three-character play about scientists; it’s a trip that will be emotionally fraught, leavened improbably with heavy-handed humor.
Immediately it is evident that George knows about the June/Rory tryst and the conversation descends into personal assaults via quotations from T.S. Eliot, Tennyson and others. They pause long enough to tell a few hoary jokes in the “how many physicists does it take to….” vein. They snipe at each other’s backgrounds and fields of expertise. They even ironically mention that the play they are about to attend is an example of monumental physicists sizing each other up.
Into this loaded situation bursts comic relief in the form of a Ukrainian couple (Bonnie Black and Russell Saylor) dreadfully and cringe-worthily over the top from their accents to their rough-hewn behavior to their peasant costumes. (Costumes which vary from high quality everyday clothes to the period dress of the three physicists are by Elena Vannoni.) They are, surprisingly, knowledgeable about theoretical physics having attended the same conference that involved June, George and Rory.
In the second act—shades of the recent musical If/Then!—June is now married to Rory and having the affair with George. More personal assaults combined with discussions of String Theory, etc., ensue.
This time, it’s an American couple (Black and Saylor again), fat, loud and vulgar who infiltrate and interrupt the drama.
As each gets more and more perturbed, they disappear into fantasies about their patron saint physicists. For June, it’s Marie Curie, discoverer of radium (made movingly real by Black); for George, Sir Isaac Newton, explainer of the rules of physics and discoverer of calculus (Jonathan Hadley, giddily exaggerated); and for Rory it’s Max Planck, quantum physics explorer (Saylor, calm to the point of coolness).
Alexa Kelly’s direction is a bit schizophrenic. The three main characters act like normal people in the throes of emotional stress while the other characters are cartoony, outlandish and unpleasantly stereotyped. Kelly is unable to conflate the two states of being: the real duress of the lead characters with the extravagant, offensive acts of the two intruding couples.
Buggé’s dialogue is constantly interesting among the three leads. She subtly reveals character and emotions even when they argue scientific theories. A particularly witty touch is a version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein ditty, “My Favorite Things” substituting physics references for Hammerstein’s gooey lyrics. The title, with its inference of String Theory, is another good touch.
A big mystery is why she felt that the thoughtful, character-driven trio’s discussions should be intruded upon by so much zaniness. The need for comic relief can’t explain it. Is it to give the supporting cast the opportunity to show off their comic chops? It’s a mystery.
Strings Attached (through October 1, 2022)
Theatre Row Theatres, 410 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-714-2442 ext. 45 or visit http://www.theatrerow.org
Running time: two hours including one intermission