The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Albert Einstein and Marian Anderson were good friends. But a new play at Ford’s Theatre only scratches the surface.

Christopher Bloch as Albert Einstein and Felicia Curry as Marian Anderson in the Ford’s Theatre production of Deborah Brevoort’s “My Lord, What a Night,” directed by Sheldon Epps. (Scott Suchman/Ford’s Theatre)
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“Einstein!” exclaims Christopher Bloch, answering the phone in Deborah Brevoort’s informative if all-too-sweetly worshipful comedy-drama “My Lord, What a Night.” Yes, it’s that Einstein, whom Bloch portrays as an affable genius who stashes Swiss chocolates in his end tables and declares, “We humans are shtoopid enough!”

Set in the late 1930s in Albert Einstein’s Princeton, N.J., home, Brevoort’s 100-minute play concerns the real-life mutual admiration society between two virtuosos, the maestro of theoretical physics and the revered contralto Marian Anderson. The play, under Sheldon Epps’s direction at Ford’s Theatre, culminates in one of the foundational events in the struggle for civil rights: Anderson’s historic 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial, a breakthrough for a Black artist who, despite her acclaim, suffered the indignities of Jim Crow racism.

You might not have known that these two titans of their time sustained a friendship; in regard to mining the outlines of that relationship, Brevoort deserves applause for bringing it to audiences’ attention. But outlines are all we really get in this formulaic exercise that ceaselessly seeks to instruct us in the parallels between the oppression of Black people and Jewish people, in this country and concurrently in Nazi Germany.

“My Lord, What a Night” joins a passel of other pioneering shows restarting in-person theater in the Washington region, after the long, pandemic-enforced drought. Arena Stage’s “Toni Stone,” Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “The Amen Corner” and Round House Theatre’s “Quixote Nuevo” were among those stepping forward last month to usher in the revival of live performance — at a time when ticket sales are sluggish and playhouses are exceptionally hard to fill.

Woolly Mammoth Theatre, too, has embarked on a restart with “Teenage Dick,” a reasonably diverting comedy that transposes “Richard III” to an American high school. For all of these companies, an arduous season of coaxing theatergoers back lies ahead. At the very least, their welcome-home choices underline an effort to respond to calls for more equitable representation. It’s not that the response was absent before the pandemic. But it is worth noting that artists of color and those with disabilities figure prominently in all of these productions. A collective will for permanent change may be taking hold.

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At Ford's, the theme is the long-standing alliance between Black people and Jewish people, a bond that has been wrenched and tested over time. In this biodrama, the focus is the attempt by racial-justice activist Mary Church Terrell (played compellingly by Franchelle Stewart Dorn) to persuade a reluctant Anderson (Felicia Curry) to speak out about her own humiliating treatment. Einstein — portrayed here as a liberal so independent-minded that he infuriates his nervous Jewish superior (Michael Russotto) at the Institute for Advanced Study — fuels Anderson's unhappiness by taking Terrell's side.

Curry, possessed of a mellifluous singing voice (which she is permitted to demonstrate) spends much of the play looking worried. Both she and Bloch are polished actors who are here afflicted with Icon Portrayal Syndrome, a peculiar condition whose symptoms include a tendency to key on one ennobling character trait and cling to it for dear life. Bloch’s fallback is an impish grin, the telltale sign of Einstein’s decency; Curry’s is a downcast gaze that signals her profound ambivalence, the war in her soul between her knowledge of the responsibility that her fame and talent confer on her and her desire not to rock the boat.

One wishes the director and playwright would have given them leeway to use more of themselves in their performances and less of the material that makes up their monuments. Russotto and especially Dorn have more success, as the play’s wedge drivers. Set on two nights, two years apart, the play has Dorn’s Terrell and Russotto’s Abraham Flexner arriving unannounced at the home of Einstein, who has invited Anderson to stay with him in Princeton. Meghan Raham’s book-dominated set and Karen Perry’s period costumes accessorize aptly the evening’s warmer tones.

Dorn and Russotto have the job of laying out the realities of a society that in somewhat parallel ways restricts both Black people and Jewish people. Dorn, for certain, gives us a resonant portrait of a Black woman who’s had to learn persistence because the world has always underestimated her. The important points are all underscored in an edifying drama that nevertheless feels burdened by good intentions.

With trademark irreverence, Woolly Mammoth has returned to the stage with a play full of characters who are anything but stock. Chief among them in "Teenage Dick": a dastardly antagonist who has cerebral palsy and a wiseacre sidekick in a wheelchair. And why the heck not? Mike Lew's unstereotypical comedy, directed by the surehanded Moritz von Stuelpnagel, is a riff on cutthroat high school life — though it uses a bit tritely the idea of a tumultuous class election as its centerpiece. ("Election" with Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick did this way earlier, and better.)

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Gregg Mozgala has the marquee role here, as a disabled, modern-day Richard who spouts Shakespeare and seeks to upend his lowly place in the school pecking order with a malice-filled campaign to win the election. It is lovely to see a juicy role for an actor with a disability who hopefully will get many more such opportunities. Mozgala does a dandy job. But it’s another disabled actor, Shannon DeVido as a jaded, sex-obsessed student scooting about speaking truths from a wheelchair, who provides the evening’s sarcastic flair. On this occasion, a shout-out goes to the writer who came up with so ripe a role for DeVido — and everyone else who played a role in casting her.

My Lord, What a Night, by Deborah Brevoort. Directed by Sheldon Epps. Set, Meghan Raham; costumes, Karen Perry; lighting, Max Doolittle; sound, John Gromada; projections, Clint Allen. About 100 minutes. $18-$48. Through Oct. 24 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. 202-347-4833.

Teenage Dick, by Mike Lew. Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel. Set, Wilson Chin; costumes, Kelsey Hunt; lighting, Amith Chandrashaker; sound, Palmer Hefferan. With Emily Townley, Portland Thomas, Zurin Villanueva, Louis Reyes McWilliams. About 100 minutes. $17-$81. Through Oct. 17 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. 202-393-3939.

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