Actor Steven Conroy portrays a young Albert Einstein in the play. Actor Steven Conroy portrays a young Albert Einstein in the play. Actor Steven Conroy portrays a young Albert Einstein in the play. (Photo: Sean Meehan)

A new Einstein play opens on Broadway, and it's got puppets

In an exclusive interview, the playwright reveals his logic (he has some, we promise) and what he has up his sleeve next.

When we ask playwright Zachary Desmond to describe his new production, "Friends with Albert," he tells us that it's about Albert Einstein, his wife Mileva and the discoveries they make together. Then he says matter-of-factly: "And there are puppets. I would add that." He pauses, and reiterates: "There are puppets."

Yes, there are both puppets and humans in the show, which opened last week and will run through Sept. 10 at the Access Theater on Broadway.

So how did he come up with this, um, genius idea? "I knew it was something I wanted for a long time," says Desmond, who recently moved from the tiny village of Sitka, Alaska, to New York City. "One of the things with the play is whether or not Albert is a puppet himself and this notion of, is he being used by genius? Is he being used by his destiny, or does he actually have agency, real choice in that matter?"

(From left to right, not including puppets): Steven Conroy, Julie Congress, Emily Vetsch, Chris Clark and Alison Novelli.(From left to right, not including puppets): Steven Conroy, Julie Congress, Emily Vetsch, Chris Clark and Alison Novelli. (Photo: Sean Meehan)

Sure, those existential questions are addressed in the two-hour show, which also delves into topics related to physics. To help offset some of those heavier moments, other parts of the show seem like they're from the mind of "The Muppet Show" and are filled with fluffy chaos. "I want puppets to be involved because that is fun to me as an audience member, and I think that is how fun physics is for Albert," Desmond explains. "It really is this world of imagination for where anything's possible. It's about suspending your disbelief enough to play with ideas, and I think that the puppets really contribute to that sense of play."

That said, this love story is actually not a happy one. "It's essentially about Albert and his early relationship with his first wife, who was his intellectual equal, and them beginning to discover some of his early ideas, and it's about how their relationship evolved and eventually falls apart." This chapter in Einstein's early life made up a big chunk of this summer's "Genius" show on National Geographic, which depicted the life of the beloved genius. As for the play, "Mileva ends up being the soul of the show, while Einstein is the engine," Desmond says.

Actor Steven Conroy during a rehearsal for the show.Actor Steven Conroy during a rehearsal for the show. (Photo: Jane Clausen)

So what is it about Einstein that has people, 60 years after his passing, still so enamored with his life and teachings? Desmond believes it's the "prophetic quality" to which Einstein's lessons are applicable today. "There's stuff about imagination. His stuff about humanity's penchant for destruction. The invitation to eschew authority I think is attractive." And all of this coming from a man who, until he was really recognized by the scientific community, was essentially an underdog. "In writing about Einstein, and giving it this mythic quality, I'm really just writing about myself."

As for Desmond's next project, it begins this week. The 27-year-old is starting classes for a master's in fine arts at Juilliard. And he has ideas for another play, this one about a middle-aged man dying of an aggressive form of brain cancer. But Desmond tells us not to worry, and that there's a silver lining. "Well that sounds really dark," he admits, "but we're gonna add a puppet, and so it's gonna be fun."

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