You’re free to fiddle with your phone during “Bell,” the one-man bio-drama about Alexander Graham Bell now playing at the National Geographic Society. Bell, after all, invented the telephone. And in the informational new play by Jim Lehrer, Bell is nothing if not proud.
So he gladly flaunts how far his ingenious little device has come since its invention in 1876. He even asks the audience in the Grosvenor Auditorium to go ahead and pull the gizmos out.
Yet this Bell, played imperiously and likably by Rick Foucheux (in a three-piece suit and a Santa beard), also chafes at what we learn was the most profitable patent ever. Once, he tells us, he ripped a phone off the wall.
“How you all deal with having one in your pocket is beyond me,” Bell grumbles to the audience.
This time-defying conversational style is Lehrer’s way of having fun with his subject, which was brought to him by National Geographic. (The play, the first presented by National Geographic Live, is part of the 125th-anniversary celebration of the society. Its second president was none other than Bell.)
Lehrer, well known as the longtime anchor of “PBS NewsHour” and a moderator of presidential debates, has written a couple of plays and 21 novels. You can trust him to sort through what’s interesting about his subject, and in “Bell” the playwright catches hold of a distinctive voice and hangs on for an ambling, personable 80 minutes.
What comes through most clearly is the great man’s frustration; being “the telephone man” isn’t enough. Bell sort of talks sideways — respectfully yet bitterly — about his peer, rival and sometime collaborator, Thomas Alva Edison. You think the Wright Brothers were first in flight? Bell was in the hunt, too, and he never sounds more scientific than when he describes putting together his flying machine.
The play flags a little as it sets up a long sequence about the metal detector Bell created to help James Garfield’s doctors after the president had been shot. The passage eventually becomes quite dramatic, and again drives home the theme that seems to fascinate Lehrer: the successful man’s failure.
Longtime D.C. actor Foucheux flourishes inside this contradiction. The performance, directed without fuss by Jeremy Skidmore, comes off like a colorful lecture by a self-indulgent speaker, and Foucheux uses his commanding voice to establish authority, impishly landing jokes but still letting you know how great he is/was. Tony Cisek’s simple set adds to the sense of occasion, with its towering back wall papered by important-looking designs and notes.
Yet there’s a brooding streak that Foucheux gets to with dry deliveries, pauses and downward glances. At one point Bell, whose wife, Mabel, was deaf, explains how he got caught up with the idea of eugenics. The shame is raw, and the mea culpa is as gripping as anything in this brief summary of a big life.
Pressley is a freelance writer.
by Jim Lehrer. Directed by Jeremy Skidmore. About 80 minutes. Costume and props, Marie Schneggenburger; lights, Dan Covey; projection designer, Jared Mezzocchi; sound design, Matthew M. Nielson. Through Sept. 21 at the National Geographic Society’s Grosvenor Auditorium, 1600 M St. NW. Call 202-857-7700 or visit nglive.org/bell.