That knowledge is a dangerous thing, and a lot of knowledge frightfully dangerous, is the wisdom offered by "The Physicists," which was written in 1961 by Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt. This is the first of six plays at the Kennedy Center to be produced by Roger L. Stevens and Ralph Allen with the financial help of CBS, to be known collectively as the Eisenhower Theater Season.
The first offering comes out very strongly indeed against the destruction of the world. It uses the respectably venerable theatrical device of declaring the mad people sane and the sane ones mad. And it has a distinguished cast. Perhaps that will be enough to make audiences think that they have endured something important.
Yet the play does not bear scrutiny in terms of its own premise. If one scientist discovers a secret that will obliterate humanity and makes a moral decision not to entrust it to politicians, why doesn't he just drop the problem and go on to another? The elaborate methods that give form to this play are all designed merely to let one man retain what he alone knows.
What seems to have obscured this obvious deduction is a magical awe and fear of the scientist as super-genius, so removed from the normal range of human achievement and the general state of his science that he alone can control what will or will not enter the body of human knowledge. Presumably, he is so magical as to himself fear that his power will radiate onto the world of its own volition unless he takes articifial means to imprison it.
The characters of the play are three physicists, inmates of a luxurious Swiss asylum that pampers patients to the extent of murmuring soothingly, "Try not to think about it" when the patients murder their nurses. Irene Worth plays the psychiatrist who owns the place. Great actress she may be known to be, but she plays a hunchback in high heels with erect posture, as if she were a soldier with a backpack. Brian Bedford plays an inmate who claims to be Sir Isaac Newton, George Grizzard another who says he is Albert Einstein, and Len Cariou appears as a modern genius who claims to get his instructions personally from King Solomon. Mad or sane, cunning or foolish, they are a dull bunch, and it stretches credulity to imagine that their doomed nurses find them irresistible.
Or, for that matter, that they are so regarded by good people who want to raise the intellectual level of the commercial theater.
THE PHYSICISTS -- At the Eisenhower Theater through January 16.