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'Irreversible': Questions Science Shouldn't Answer

This drama brings Robert Oppenheimer’s mission to create the first atomic bomb to life.

At first glance, it may seem an odd choice, the production of a new World War II-era play all these years later, safely removed from the terrors of Nazi Germany and Japanese imperialism. But one only has to read a few sentences into playwright Jack Karp's program note for his play Irreversible to understand just how important it is that his story be told today:

"But the longer I worked on the script, the more I was struck with how (unfortunately) this story was actually not unique at all, being about a nation racing headlong into a military adventure based on faulty intelligence that a brutal dictator was developing weapons of mass destruction, ultimately costing the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians."

Ouch. So what can we learn from Robert Oppenheimer's dilemma, the struggle to build the first atomic bomb but still have it used responsibly? Karp and the Red Fern Theatre Company have put together a compelling drama about how we know when science has gone too far, a play that will teach you more about American history and the science behind nuclear warfare than you could ever expect without feeling like you're watching something educational. This is the world of Irreversible.

We begin two years into the Manhattan Project, as Robert "Oppy" Oppenheimer and his brother Frank fight to make any headway with their unsolvable physics problem. When refugee Danish Jewish physicist Niels Bohr comes to visit and brings evidence of how far the Germans' atomic project has gone, however, Oppy jumps on Frank's new idea, even as pleas from his former mistress back at Berkeley distract him from the task at hand. And when the test bomb in the desert of New Mexico succeeds, as we know it did, a new question arises: can we really use this monumentally destructive weapon against Japanese civilians?

Irreversible gets off to a slow start, stuck in the mode of a standard historical drama, but picks up considerably once the different storylines begin to fold in on themselves. There's Oppy's passionate love affair with Jean, his faltering marriage with bored former scientist wife Kitty, his tumultuous relationship with brother Frank as they try to do the impossible and the battle to maintain it all within the confines of a top secret military project. In this story of an American hero, nothing is more fascinating than his divided loyalties.

Those loyalties even include ties to the Communist Party, of which Frank and Jean are proud members and Oppy himself a reluctant fan. The play does a great job realistically depicting how the terror of Communism had already infected the United States by 1944, and how it completely rewrote our history—if you're wondering why you have never heard of Frank Oppenheimer before now.

And while it's difficult to find sympathy for Oppy's attempts to juggle responsibilities to his wife and his mistress, even with her mental health issues, Oppenheimer's moral quandary regarding the atomic bomb ultimately forms the heart of the story. The connection to modern Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria slowly becomes more relevant as false intelligence is used to justify military aggression and we openly ask if American lives matter more than Japanese ones. And along with the genius physicist, we realize just how easy it is to ignore the consequences of one's scientific inquiries, until the moment at which people begin to die as a result of them.

Though distractingly young for the role of 40-year-old Robert Oppenheimer, Jordan Kaplan's energy and insatiable curiosity as Oppy is deeply relatable, and he carries the show with confidence. Other powerful presences on stage despite their brief appearances include Laura Pruden as Kitty and Dan Odell as Niels, who has a knack for saying just the right uncomfortable thing about the Nazis at the right time to somehow leave us laughing. Hugh Sinclair's General Leslie Groves is likewise a surprisingly deep and entertaining character despite his military rigidity, though Amelia Mathews' Jean and Josh Doucette's Frank left something to be desired in this world of strong players and personalities.

Irreversible delicately balances humor and personal intrigue with moments that emphasize the horror of what the Manhattan Project was. Whether it's Frank's description of what happened to the Oppenheimer family horses who were left outside during the test bombing to observe its effects on living creatures or Niels' recounting of his escape from Nazi-occupied Denmark, this is a play about just a few people that nonetheless hits home on an international scale. And when Niels asks Oppy, in all seriousness, if he would still be doing the same research if he had been born German instead of American, we are left wondering just how lucky we are to have survived.

The play ends with fellow famed physicist Edward Teller beginning to develop a new, even more lethal weapon, what we now know as the hydrogen bomb, and it is clear that there is no end to the death and destruction that unchecked scientific curiosity can cause. And as much as the Oppenheimers try to distance themselves from the project, they know that it can continue on without them, and that more casualties will follow in its wake. If you ever thought that physics was boring, come see this play, because hidden beneath all of the graphs and figures is a matter of life and death.

Irreversible plays at the Theater at the 14th Street Y through March 29.

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