The new play from Motley, Naseeruddin Shah’s theatre troupe, is Einstein. The actor directs the piece and also takes on the role of the eponymous scientist engaged in much stock-taking and disposing of memories and monuments at age 70.

While the markers that signify the onslaught of age—absent-mindedness, bland nourishment, and a halo firmly in place—contribute running gags to the proceedings, Shah (six years shy of 70 himself) isn’t so far gone in decrepitude. Instead, he is a rather adroit and vital presence on stage, lighting up as a bulb in moments of clarity, rushing in on new insights fed by a still fertile imagination, despite such embellishments as a shuffling gait or a sporadically arthritic demeanour. Although not rooted in the period of the piece, his intonations, lightly touched with a German lilt, are pitch-perfect, but that is to be expected of an actor known for immaculate delivery.

Quite interestingly, the dry opacity of heavy-duty scientific theory is reduced to nuggets of worldly wisdom—bite-sized profundities as easily applicable to everyday situations as home truths. Even as a blackboard littered with equations forms the backdrop, Shah never risks coming across as a professor in residence, his spiel isn’t a lecture, and on the Prithvi stage, he is an actor who appears to be completely at home.

As we proceed, the facts and letters of a chequered life present themselves in quick succession. The collapsing of time and space that such a monologue must rely upon with such dispatch, seems perfectly suited for a personage most famous for the theory of relativity. Einstein’s 1905 breakthrough with four published papers, his flight to the US in the face of rising anti-Semitic forces in Germany, his grappling with celebrity in an amusing tête-à-tête with actor Charlie Chaplin, and the indelible linking of his legacy with the utter devastation wreaked by the atom bomb. The women in his life become footnotes in this telling, although Shah touchingly evokes memories of the long dead Elsa (Einstein’s second wife).

However, it must be said that this broadly sympathetic portrayal of an iconic figure seems rather devoid of conflict in its overall tone. Perhaps this lionizing is to be expected of a play first performed in Hebrew for a Jewish audience—the playwright, Gabriel Emanuel, co-founded the Nephesh Theatre, the only Jewish theatre group in Toronto, Canada. Visuals of mushroom clouds accompanied by an ominous overture are belied by Emanuel’s simplistic moral arguments.

In as much as the play is a speculative exercise which takes us into Einstein’s living room, not much is made of the questions of history that weigh upon him. Neither does Shah attempt a more probing excursion into the man’s conscience, which is why he seems to be wearing his much touted pacifist leanings like a mere rosette on a pocket. Ultimately we are left with a tastefully done-up, old-fashioned, low-risk enterprise.

With a great actor at its disposal, perhaps a different journey could have been effected. For many, the actor himself is worth the price of admission, and the character he plays, a mere aside.

Einstein opened the ongoing Prithvi Theatre Festival on 5 November. It will be staged at the Tata Theatre at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Nariman Point, Mumbai, on 15-16 November, at 6.30pm. Tickets, 400-1,000, available on in.bookmyshow.com

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