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Theater: Insignificance

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Playwright: Terry Johnson

At: Steep Theatre, 3902 N. Sheridan

Phone: 312-458-0722; $18

Runs through: Sept. 1

This curious and dark comedy by British author Terry Johnson is set in a New York hotel in the 1950s, where improbable coincidence brings together four famous, unnamed people who clearly are Albert Einstein, the powerful red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Marilyn Monroe and her then-husband, baseball legend Joe DiMaggio. If Insignificance intends to be a commentary on the nature of fame, it doesn't succeed ( at least not to me ) . Rather, it comes across as a ham-fisted and mean-spirited attack on American culture in which politics and popular culture ( sports ) brutalize—quite literally—pure science and the creative sensitivity, and bend them to their own purposes.

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Johnson makes a series of little errors about character, time and place that intrude on the play's verisimilitude. For instance, Einstein wears a sweatshirt with a 'P' on it—for Princeton University, where he lived, perhaps an hour's drive from New York City; yet, the senator asks him if he had a good flight. Ostensibly, Einstein has been subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee ( HUAC ) , and McCarthy is the enforcer sent to assure Einstein's appearance. But ( a ) it should be Washington, not New York; ( b ) a senator has no authority in the House; ( c ) there's no such thing as a search warrant issued by the Department of Defense; and ( d ) even if there were, a senator wouldn't be the muscle who executes the warrant. Next, the gimmick of sexual attraction between blonde bombshell and brainy scientist is standard-issue, as is Johnson's dumb-jock take on DiMaggio ( although Johnson does get DiMaggio's jealousy right ) . The senator himself—who says he's from Louisiana while McCarthy was from Wisconsin—is a vulgar, racist, anti-Semitic thug, which fits in perfectly with the notion that Insignificance really is a play about a repressive, strong-arm government.

Johnson offers some counterbalancing set pieces, such as Monroe's brilliant explanation of the theory of relativity, and comedy bits for DiMaggio, who's so unknowingly thick he's nearly an idiot savant. But it's hardly enough to make this quirky vehicle soar. Sure, it's a fantasy—but it simply isn't fantastic enough. It's only hope is an inspired production, which this one is not except for the imaginative little set by John Wilson, offering a three-dimensional cityscape, a lovely cosmos trompe l'oeil background and some pretty lighting effects. The four cast members are diligent and professional and bear a passing resemblance to the people they portray, but under director Brad Akin they don't enlarge or particularly illuminate the script, which alternates between the clever and the clich├ęd. Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile—in which Einstein meets Picasso meets Elvis Presley—handles the quirky historic meeting gimmick more adeptly, at once funnier and more fantastic. The comparison is inevitable.

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