How can you tell when you're famous? Well, when your name is used as an official unit of measurement, is also the name of an electrical transformer, and is emblazoned on a high-end automobile, you can safely assume you've achieved fame.
Of course, many of the tributes to Nikola Tesla (the Tesla unit of magnetic induction, the Tesla coil, and Elon Musk's Tesla electric car) arrived after his death. While he was alive, this engineering genius often struggled in the shadow of other, more famous inventors such as Thomas Edison, his lifelong foe who, in turn, thoroughly detested Tesla.
The Tesla story is revealed in bold strokes (and too many mini-lectures) in The Chaste Genius and His DeathRay Gun by esteemed local playwright Christopher Johnston. Tesla was a Serbian-American who contributed mightily to the advancement of alternating current (AC), along with holding a patent for wireless communication. But more than that, Tesla was an inquisitive fellow whose personal quirks almost matched his voracious intellectual curiosity.
Directed with imagination and insight by Geoffrey Hoffman, the play attempts to encompass the entirety of Tesla's adult life. As the title indicates, there's no love interest in this story. Tesla appeared to live without personal relationships of any kind, devoting his 22-hour workdays (!) to the single-minded pursuit of his scientific theories and inventions, which have changed the way we live today.
Given Tesla's gargantuan output, this is still a huge challenge, and playwright Johnston is mostly successful in conveying the Tesla mystique. The dialog scenes capture the turn-of-the-century period well, and have the snap of spontaneity that makes them quite engrossing.
From an energy standpoint, Chaste Genius is arcing in all the right ways. From Jim Smith's ingenious scenic design, featuring metal pipes conducting all manner of impulses, to the lighting design by Cory Molner that at times isolates the cool, wireless fluorescence of one of Nick's signature inventions, the stage is alive with vitality. Beau Reinker's crackling sound design adds to the sizzling mix.
And that energy is enhanced by the performances of the four-person cast, three of whom portray various personalities who interacted with Tesla during his long life.
Some of these characters stand out, such as Robert Branch's rendition of a fulsome Mark Twain who is fond of quoting himself. When Tesla is about to show off some of his electrical pyrotechnics to visitors, Twain declaims, "What I always say, and mind you they'll be quoting me into the hereafter, is that thunder is good, thunder is impressive, but it's lightning that does the work!"
Val Kozlenko amusingly portrays a very attentive waiter at the luxe hotel where Tesla dines daily, providing a pleasant atmosphere so the great man can encounter his meal with his precise, scientific curiosity (Tesla measures the cubic volume of his food). Kozlenko also delivers a fine mini-portrait of the young Serbian scientist from the future, Dragan, who soaks up everything he can absorb from Tesla.
Although she does her best to impersonate some titans of the business world, including William Vanderbilt, Nicole McLaughlin-Lublin is more successful as the female characters. These include Katherine Johnson, wife of Tesla's pal Robert. However, the play never makes clear who Robert and Katherine Johnson are, and why they're important to Tesla.
In addition, some of McLaughlin-Lublin's lines suffer from too much forced character explanation. When Tesla visits the Johnsons at home, she says, "Well, Mr. Scientist, we know you are always immersed, pushing and pushing to impregnate science with your seeds of new discovery ..." Double entendre alert!
In the role of Tesla, Robert Hawkes fully embodies this self-controlled and nattily attired man, drawing a contrast to the shabby and unkempt Edison. Given their enmity, it's entertaining at the beginning of Act 2 when Tesla and Edison go mano-a-mano in an AC/DC duel, which wireless Tesla wins handily when Edison can't find an outlet to plug in his incandescent bulb.
Indeed, the scenes where Tesla interacts with others work splendidly, such as when he's trying to pry money out of famed fiancier J.P. Morgan (Kozlenko). But one temptation when writing about a person as fascinating as Tesla is to give him the floor a bit too often. And in this work, playwright Johnston has Tesla go off on several monologs that turn into lectures. And even a performer as talented as Hawkes can't always keep these wordy rants on course.
Speaking of the title, it turns out no one ever found Tesla's supposed "DeathRay Gun" which could, he claimed, destroy an army at 250 miles. Similarly, no one has ever discovered what made the man Nikola Tesla tick. But this engaging play offers some tantalizing hints.