Signifying Something

Insignifance is more than entertaining.

The United States could recover from an all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union in just two to four years.... Nuclear war is not nearly as devastating as we have been led to believe. If there are enough shovels to go around, everybody's going to make it. Dig a hole in the ground, cover with a couple of doors, and then cover the doors with three feet of dirt. It's the dirt that does it. --Undersecretary of Defense T.K. Jones, 1981

In some ways, there's less to Terry Johnson's Insignificance than meets the eye; in other ways, there's more. The play is set in 1953, and Marilyn Monroe is in New York filming a scene for The Seven Year Itch, standing over a subway grate while the skirt of her white halter-top dress flies up around her. Nearby, Albert Einstein, in town for a conference on world peace, putters around his hotel room. The play imagines a meeting between the two icons. (The actress claimed to admire Einstein, and there's a persistent urban legend about such a meeting.) The other characters in this strange little tale are Joe DiMaggio -- who doesn't recognize Einstein, but is incensed to discover his wife in another man's hotel room -- and Senator Joe McCarthy, come to remind Einstein of his obligation to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the morning. He won't be appearing, Einstein responds. He'll be at the peace conference.

I had seen Nicolas Roeg's 1985 film of the play many years before, so I knew there wasn't much point in searching for some over-arching meaning or philosophy. The text is intelligent and hugely entertaining. It provides a provocative take on four major American figures (Einstein wasn't born in the United States, but he did make his home here, and his image is as American -- and as suitable for a dorm-room poster -- as Marilyn standing over her grate, Brando on a motorcycle, James Dean slouching against a wall with a cigarette dangling from his lip). But despite the talk about history, politics, science, war and peace, and the shape of the universe, you won't find a coherent message here. Once you've accepted that, you can simply sit back and enjoy the action.

Play ball! William Hahn and Rhonda Brown in 
Insignificance.
Play ball! William Hahn and Rhonda Brown in Insignificance.

John Ashton's production at the Mizel Center is cast well. Rhonda Brown doesn't mimic Monroe exactly, but she's absorbed her manner and intonations. She particularly shines in the early scenes and in her interactions with Einstein, played by a kindly, woolly John Arp. There's a wonderful moment in the film The Misfits when Monroe discovers an improvised stairway that Clark Gable has constructed for her and begins playing on it. "I can go up! I can go down! I can go up! I can go down!" she burbles, purely joyous. This is the same sweet, silly giggle we hear from Brown as her Monroe sinks into a chair after successfully explaining the theory of relativity to its bemused discoverer, using toy trains and balloons. William Hahn's DiMaggio is hardly the sports hero we remember, but he does create a very effective and fascinatingly original character. In one of the play's best scenes, he explains to Einstein just how famous he is and how many baseball cards he's graced, and the scientist responds that he, too, has some small claim to fame: He was once on a Lucky Strike package. That's great, DiMaggio reassures him, with kindly condescension. Joe McCarthy is perhaps the easiest of the four parts to play, but the role is loads of fun and sometimes menacing, and Michael Morgan carries it off very well indeed.

While Insignificance is more entertaining than deep, there are things about the play that tease at my imagination. Johnson does want to say something, well, significant. There's resonance in these larger-than-life figures, the tension between the isolated human beings -- Monroe and her thwarted desire for a child, Einstein with his fears for the world and DiMaggio suffering his jealous and possessive love -- and the images of them created by the confluence of media hype, culture, history and the yearning of an insular population for meaning. In Johnson's script, the characters have no names; they are simply Professor, Actress, Ballplayer and Senator.

And then there's Einstein's reluctant role in the creation of the bomb. As Monroe prepares to leave the hotel room, we hear a menacing rumble and the lights dim. Within seconds, things are back to normal: Ashton doesn't choose to give this moment any particular emphasis. Yet it's the most striking part of Roeg's film, an apocalypse rendered in slow-moving, seductively beautiful images, a terrifying sequence that nullifies everything that has gone before -- the hotel room, the stagehand under the grating who glanced up and saw "the face of God," our entire precious and vulnerable world -- and melts the flesh from Marilyn's bones. Insignificanceis set at the height of the Cold War; in 1982, when it was written, Ronald Reagan was laying plans for a nuclear war that he considered winnable. And then the sequence is over, and the Actress stands in the hotel room, radiant in her white dress, whispering goodbye.

 
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