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How They Learned To Love The Bomb

by Lina Zeldovich on September 25, 2012

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Building an atomic bomb can be fun. At least, according to Chain Reaction by Jonathan Alexandratos, a play both hilarious and believable in its absurdity.
In his script, Alexandratos has quite a stunning melee of nuclear geniuses, each with distinctive character traits which they reveal when they announce themselves to the audience: J. Robert Oppenheimer – a scientist (Paul Corning, Jr), General Leslie Groves – an optimist (Dustye Winniford), Edward Teller – a pessimist (James Nugent) and finally Niels Bohr – a pacifist (Michael Selkirk.)  From here on, we’re on a whirlwind affair with the A-bomb.
In the 1940s Los Alamos, things are already near critical mass. Groves can’t wait to see the Little Boy ready for action – or “we’re all speaking Japanese come winter!”  Oppenheimer is very conflicted about the weapon his team is building, but he is driven by the obligations towards his country. Teller has no qualms about his creation, the deadlier the better.  Alas, his first nuclear test bombs out – the coveted weapon of mass destruction hits the ground with barely more than a thud.  The last thing the trio needs to set off the chain reaction is Bohr – who arrives with his son Aage, whisked away from the Nazis and safely delivered to the welcoming embrace of Uncle Sam. Teller bears a life-long grudge against Bohr for winning the Nobel Prize, and wants him in no part of the mission.  Bohr is the project’s critical mass, however. With him on board, the atoms split, fission and fusion work, and the next test blows the scientists’ mind.
A lot happens during this 1.5 hour excurse into the world’s history: love affairs, scientific jealousy, deep and meaningful father-son conversations with a whiff of communist witch hunt thrown in.  The omnipresence of agents spices things up: they seem to pop up out of nowhere and possess almost supernatural powers – they kidnap Bohr, spy on Oppenheimer and seduce Teller into ratting Oppenheimer out. In the whirlpool of human emotions, bombs get created, tested and set free.  The audience even gets to “witness” the explosion, thanks to two ghost-like figures who shuffle stage props and create ridiculously believable and funny sound effects – from rhythmically beeping hospital monitors to A-bomb blasts (who would have thought aluminum lasagna pans can be so handy in nuclear sound effects?)
The play would’ve been too heavy if it wasn’t so comical. It would’ve been depressing if the characters didn’t act so silly. How do humor and the deadliest technology ever created by man co-exist in such harmonious symbiosis in Chain Reaction?  It’s an amalgamation of the witty script, distinctive personalities brought to life by the cohesive cast and the clever staging and production. It’s Oppenheimer dictating an official memo to Los Alamos administration requesting a nail in the wall so he can hang his hat.  It’s General Grove practicing his dart-throwing skills – at the dartboard bearing Hitler’s face (where on earth did they even find that thing?)  It’s Bohr stepping out of character oh so charmingly. “Your secretary looks very much like my wife,” he tells Oppenheimer when he arrives in America. Well yes, both parts are played by Sandy Oppedisano.
The bottom line is, we all know how the story will end.  We know the bombs will drop.  We know two Japanese cities will be nearly evaporated.  The history buffs may even know that Oppenheimer will be accused of being a communist and banned from research. Still, the play keeps our attention to the end. Which, by the way, culminates in the present day Hiroshima memorial, where Teller, Oppenheimer and Groves, all eternalized as sculptures frozen behind glass, get to have their last and final rapport.
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