|L-R: Zal Owen and Brennan Caldwell in EINSTEIN'S DREAMS. Photo by Richard Termine.|
Richard Feynman, the renowned Nobel Prize winning physicist, once remarked “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity may not be as incomprehensible as quantum physics but it certainly is difficult to fathom. How, for instance, can one really get his mind around the fact that the passage of time itself is dependent upon the perspective of the observer? Or that time slows down as one travels faster so that an interstellar space traveler moving at, say, one-tenth the speed of light could return to Earth younger than his own children?
As a consequence, writers attempting to expound upon these themes are faced with a difficult choice: they can write dry, scholarly, textbooks which may prove of value to students of physics, cosmology and mathematics but that may do little to enlighten or entertain the general reader. Or they can sacrifice rigorous textbook explanations and adopt, instead, more metaphorical approaches to these subjects - approaches that may not be totally factually correct in an objective sense but that still will capture the essence of the issues involved.
As an example, they may note that time spent with a lover passes quickly whereas five minutes in a dentist’s chair may seem like an eternity. Or, as Albert Einstein, himself, once expressed it:
“Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”
This sentiment, of course, is a soft psychological truth, not a hard scientific one, but it does capture the essence of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to the effect that the passage of time can only be measured relative to an observer’s own point of view.
Alan Lightman is something of a Renaissance Man. Having graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude from Princeton and with a PhD in theoretical physics from the California Institute of Technology, he went on to teach at Harvard and MIT. But he is not only a physicist and teacher: he is also a published poet, essayist and novelist. And so it should come as no surprise that he also is the first professor at MIT to have received a joint appointment in the sciences and the humanities - nor that he has lectured at more than 100 universities regarding the differences between the ways that scientists and artists view the world.
Lightman’s best known work, Einstein’s Dreams, originally published in 1992 and subsequently translated into 30 languages, was an international bestseller. In the novel, set in 1905, Albert Einstein appears as a young patent clerk, struggling to make sense of the world, to distinguish his dreams from reality, and to construct his magnum opus, the Theory of Relativity. The book consists of thirty chapters, each envisioning a different world in which time functions differently: In one, it is “sticky,” with people “stuck” in a single moment in their lives. In another it is circular. In a third, it is finite and about to end. In a fourth, it flows backwards. In a fifth, cause and effect are not necessarily chronological . And in yet another, it branches off into alternative universes.
And so the question arises: If such “other” worlds did exist, how would their alternative conceptions of time affect human behavior? And finally: Are those one encounters in one’s dreams any less real than those one encounters when awake?
(One is reminded ot the words of Lao Tzu, the Chinese Taoist philosopher who once, upon awakening from a nap during which he dreamt he was a butterfly, said: “I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.”)
The book Einstein’s Dreams was adapted for the musical stage as Einstein’s Dreams by Joanne Sydney Lessner (book and lyrics) and Joshua Rosenblum (music and lyrics) more than a decade ago and debuted in London in 2005. Now, fourteen years later it is finally enjoying its New York off-Broadway premiere at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan in a production by the Prospect Theater Company and directed by Cara Reichel. (I’d like to think that New York theater lovers in some alternative universe didn’t have to wait quite so long.)
In this production of Einstein’s Dreams, the struggling, dreaming Albert Einstein is played by Zal Owen; Josette, the mysterious woman of his dreams and a stand-in for time itself, is played by Alexandra Silber; Michele Besso, Einstein’s close friend, is played by Brennan Caldwell; and Peter Klausen, Einstein’s officious boss at the patent office, is played by Michael McCoy. They are all excellent in their respective roles, as are Tess Primack in her dual roles as Mileva, Einstein’s first wife in real life and as Marta, the patent office’s typist; Stacia Fernandez as Hilda, Klausen’s world-weary secretary; Lisa Helmi Johanson as Besso’s wife, Anna; and Vishal Vaidya as Johannes Schmetterling, the patent office’s eager new emploiyee. But I must say I was most taken with Talia Cosentino in her role as Josie, the exuberantly intelligent little girl who lit up the stage whenever she appeared.