Theater review: ‘Photograph 51’ at Theater J

In the early 1950s, Rosalind Franklin was in the thick of a race for a Nobel Prize, but in “Photograph 51,” Anna Ziegler’s zippy history play at Theater J, Franklin didn’t much know or care. The frosty Franklin keeps her face to her microscope and does much of the key work uncovering the structure of DNA, while cannier men grab the glory.

Melodrama? You bet, and a good one. Franklin, deliciously snippy in Elizabeth Rich’s clipped, focused performance, is the clear intellectual hero: She is the purest, most genuinely curious scientist. The men, a casual bunch next to the burning, all-business Franklin, tend to be various strains of pig — ambitious, sexist, anti-Semitic, etc.

Yet Ziegler smartly roughs up this outline, blurring the edges enough to keep these historical personalities interesting. Franklin’s no saint: She’s hell in the hyper-competitive British academic workplace, intimidating and defensive about every semantic and substantive slight. Her superior, Maurice Wilkins, is smug and entitled, but he’s practically knocked woozy by Franklin’s constant lashings. The reflections that gradually color the play deal with the eternal human mystery of why people act as they do — the very stuff of drama, of course, and a far less solvable riddle than that of the DNA structure these characters stalk.

Ziegler has a good deal of fun with her scenario, ladling plenty of punch lines into laboratory broth. Alexander Strain, as a graduate assistant caught in a lot of crossfire, shows excellent timing with the hapless glances and deadpan lines Ziegler provides. And Ziegler practically makes a comic duo of James Watson and Francis Crick, the hotshot Yank and twee Brit who sniff out secrets from the Wilkins-Franklin camp as they tiptoe toward the limelight.

Daniella Topol’s staging is as brisk and knowing as the 90-minute (no intermission) script. Giorgos Tsappas’s austere set has an antiseptic look, with a narrowing focus that cleverly puts the characters under a metaphorical microscope. This design also dramatically frames the famous photograph of the title, the one Franklin made confirming the DNA double helix.

Franklin did not get her name on the Nobel that Wilkins, Watson and Crick shared four years after she died in 1958, which is reason enough for Ziegler to get the men squabbling over her history. Should they feel guilty, or was the outcome inevitable? The frictions are steadily entertaining, in part because Topol has cast the play extremely well: The acting is intelligent and light, and the play feels like it’s constantly on the move.

Clinton Brandhagen is particularly deft as Wilkins, finding an appealingly soft center in a role that might have come off as hopelessly priggish. Tim Getman, as an American scientist in thrall to Franklin, brings a thread of poetic longing into the mix, and with his mustache, big glasses and sweater, he looks especially of the 1950s (the costumes are by Ivania Stack).

James Flanagan relishes the unflappable obnoxiousness of Watson, Michael Glenn has a quiet bumbling quality as Crick, and Rich is near-heroic as the monastic Franklin. The show is probably too much fun to be strictly accurate history, but while Ziegler clearly did plenty of homework, she frankly declares that “Photograph 51” is a work of fiction. That is very much how it plays — not that you don’t believe what Ziegler is showing you, but that you do.

Pressley is a freelance writer.

Photograph 51

by Anna Ziegler. Directed by Daniella Topol. About 90 minutes. Lights, Daniel Covey; sound design/original music, Veronika Vorel. Through April 24 at the D.C. Jewish Community Center’s Goldman Theater, 1529 16th St. NW. Call 800-494-TIXS or visit www.boxofficetickets.com.

Nelson has been writing about theater and other arts – but mostly theater – for the Post since 1999.
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