written and directed by Crispin Whittell. At Hampstead Theatre, London, until 17 June http://www.hampsteadtheatre.com
“Confusion. See, confusion ain't a sickness I suffer from. I take my strength from the simple love of my country and faith in my God.” Self-doubt does not cloud the horizons of ‘Fat Man’ Sergeant Whitey Stokes, Counter-Intelligence Corps, on the evening of 17 June 1945. The Red spy he thinks he's interrogating — the physicist Richard Feynman — on the other hand, is very confused. He hasn't slept for 58 hours. On his way to Los Alamos, he took the wrong turning at Albuquerque because of a congenital inability to tell left from right. Mistaking him for her beau ‘Little Boy’, the 18-year-old receptionist of his hotel has just tried to go to bed with him.
Thus, in Clever Dick, playwright-director Crispin Whittell lays out the ingredients for a classic farce. But the sobriquets of two characters reveal a deadly serious setting: Little Boy and Fat Man were the nemeses of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One month after Whittell's imagined encounter in a New Mexico hotel room, the first atomic bomb is to be tested.
Hence Feynman, played by Adrian Rawlins with a nervous, nerdy energy that contrives to make his slight build seem lanky. His busy hands conduct to a score with some diverting passages (“So he knows a lot of Communists. I know a lot of women, but that doesn't make me a woman”) and frenetic, slapstick moments — topped by a spectacular re-entry for Fat Man, amply portrayed by Corey Johnson, that literally brings the house down.
But ultimately this farrago is, like that ceiling, a false plasterboard mishmash. Its profound periods are not deep enough nor its farcical moments sustained enough to carry the audience, which is only truly captivated by a moment of pathos towards the end when Feynman reveals the real reason for his confusion: the death, the evening before, of his wife from tuberculosis. Science enters in the second half only in a shampoo-ad-style ‘here's the science bit’ as a fig-leaf for the play's intellectual flaccidity. Feynman, rigorous scientist and, above all, great communicator of modern physics, would, one suspects, not have been pleased.
Indeed, what is Feynman doing here? He is pitched — as a participant in the Manhattan project that developed the atom bomb — as the voice of nuanced moral doubt against the dumb certitude of the gung-ho Stokes with his unshakeable faith in God and the gun (an intended contemporary resonance). But this is a role that Feynman never played: his principal extramural contribution to the Manhattan project lay not in breast-beating but bongo-beating and the apocryphal cracking of every safe containing nuclear secrets on the Los Alamos site. He was ever, in Freeman Dyson's words, “half genius and half buffoon”. As he said in a 1981 interview: “What I did — immorally, I would say — was to not remember the reason that I said I was doing it, so that when ... Germany was defeated, not the singlest thought came to my mind ... I simply didn't think, okay?”
Michael Frayn's Copenhagen left a great appetite for plays that deal with the interface of science and morality. This is Whittell's second foray onto such territory, following his generally well-received 2003 play Darwin in Malibu. The safe-cracking, wisecracking womanizer Feynman is a headline-grabbing front man for a second attempt. In this case the result is, charitably put, confused.