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Arts and Entertainment

Alan Alda's "Radiance" Shines A Dim Light On Marie Curie

Anna Gunn and John de Lancie in the Geffen Playhouse's production of "Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie." Photo - Michael Lamont
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The life and achievements of Marie Curie are certainly worthy subject matter for a play: her position as a pioneer in an otherwise male-dominated scientific establishment and her discovery of radium are full of theatrical possibility. Unfortunately Alan Alda's take on the story, Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie, only casts a dim glow where the illumination should be brilliant.

The Geffen Playhouse production has assembled a top-notch cast and secured a fine director, but the show's mundane recitation of facts and misplaced focus on Curie's love life fails to become a fitting tribute or quality drama.

In 1898 Paris, Marie Curie (Anna Gunn) and her husband Pierre (John de Lancie) are working on a study of radiation that will soon garner them a Nobel Prize. Fellow scientist Paul Langevin (Dan Donohue) expresses his support, but secretly pines for Marie. After Pierre is killed in an accident, Marie continues working to isolate radium, ignoring the untrue misogynistic jibes that her first Nobel Prize was primarily due to Pierre's work. Paul and Marie fall for each other and are happy for a time, until Paul's bitter wife Jeanne (Sarah Zimmerman) finds out what's going on and proceeds to try and destroy their lives.

Gunn is exceptionally good as Marie, convincing both in her research scenes and as a beleaguered lover, and she delivers a speech about the joys of doing science for its own sake beautifully. Her Polish accent seems accurate and consistent, but it's so notable (and noticeable, as the only accent in the production) that sometimes it distracts from the performance. Donohue struggles with blandness in an underwritten role, which never adequately explains what Paul does as a scientist or why Marie would suffer so much to be with him. Zimmerman brings dark zest to the possibly psychotic Jeanne, who makes up in spite what she lacks in scientific knowledge.

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De Lancie makes the most of his relatively short onstage time, so gruffly charming you wish he was in the play more. Hugo Armstrong, one of the consistently best actors in L.A., is marvelous as Emile Borel. As with Paul, Alda provides little information as to what exactly it is that Emile does, but Armstrong manages to make him indelible regardless. Leonard Kelly-Young is roguishly amusing as the dastardly reporter Terbougie, who plays the naïve Paul for a fool. Natacha Roi is pleasant and sympathetic as Emile's wife, Marguerite, in what unfortunately is the most underwritten role of all.

Daniel Sullivan's direction polishes everything until it shines, from the performances to the technical aspects, but the result is still a great production of a play that doesn't quite work. Alda is well intentioned, and there's no doubt he can write, but he doesn't seem to have cracked this particular conundrum. The structure of the play seems too rigid, moving from plot point to plot point like a historical connect-the-dots puzzle without explaining who all of these people are and why they're important. Also, the focus feels wrong--nobody remembers Marie Curie because she had an affair.

Thomas Lynch's multi-use set fulfills the play's scenic needs well, but John Boesche's dazzling projections bring the show to life, particularly an animation of a moving train car, branches flying by as the windows shift from bright to dark and back again, a tangible demonstration of the magic of theatre.

"Radiance" plays at the Geffen Playhouse through December 11, 2011. Tickets are available online.