Theater review: `The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer’

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Ian Walker (left) is J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, and Charles Evans is Gen. Leslie R. Groves in Carson Kreitzer’s drama The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a production from San Francisco’s Custom Made Theatre Co.


`Love Song’ serenades Oppenheimer with magic realism
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With a title that echoes T.S. Eliot, you expect a certain intellectual rigor and poetic muscle from Carson Kreitzer’s The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer, now in San Francisco courtesy of The Custom Made Theatre Company and artistic director Brian Katz, who is at the helm as director.

And Krietzer’s script doesn’t disappoint on either level. The story of Oppenheimer and his leading role in the development of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II gets a thorough and smart biographical treatment worthy of a world-altering theoretical physicist. To render the story more stage worthy, Kreitzer throws in some melodrama involving a martini-swilling wife and a suicidal lover and she underscores the entire play with a creature prowling the periphery of the stage that turns out to be Lilith, the character of Hebrew myth who pre-dated Eve as Adam’s gal pal.

Frankly speaking, I was bored by the play, just as I was bored by the Oppenheimer/bomb-related stories in John Adams and Peter Sellars’ Doctor Atomic and by the Paul Newman-John Cusack movie Fat Man and Little Boy. I understand the importance and magnitude of the work done in such secrecy in Los Alamos by Oppenheimer and his team of nerdy geniuses, but I just can’t get terribly worked up about scientist guilt. I care a whole lot more about the civilian victims in Japan and the radiation-poisoned land and people of this country, the unwitting victims of the bomb’s development.

Certainly Oppenheimer and Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock have some similarities as they ponder their lives and their places in the universe. As Prufrock says in his famous “Love Song”:

    Do I dare
    Disturb the universe?
    In a minute there is time
    For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

Oppenheimer, who taught physics at U.C. Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology from the late ’20s to the late ’40s, certainly dared to disturb the universe in a major way, and he spent the rest of his life working to prevent his invention from causing further devastation – we see that in Act 2 of the play along with his battles against Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, who had it in for Oppenheimer’s Commie-loving past.

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Though Ian Walker, himself a noted Bay Area playwright, makes for a compelling Oppenheimer, Kreitzer doesn’t surround him with much of interest beyond the explosive advancements in atomic technology. The women in his life remain rather stereotypical, and his co-workers are a blur of sameness.

The one exception is the very thing I thought would be most annoying about the play: Jessica Jade Rudholm(right) as Lilith.

Costumed like a paint-spattered iguana and confined to the jungle gym structure surrounding Cianan Duncan’s set, Rudholm is creepy Jiminy Cricket to Walker’s scientist Pinocchio. Climbing and writhing outside the reality of the story, Lilith interacts with Oppenheimer as he ruminates on his life and work. She’s an evil conscience and he’s both tormented and soothed by her verbal abuse.

What could have been a pretentious bit of nonsense turns out to be the two-hour play’s most compelling device, primarily because Rudholm is so committed to the role that she’s downright scary at times as she castigates Oppie. Equal parts modern dancer, gymnast and demon serpent, Rudholm gets quite a workout, physically and emotionally. She also has a little sense of humor, as evidenced when describing how she was cast from Eden: “God revoked my security clearance.”

The play, for all its seriousness, could use more jolts of humor like that. Kreitzer seems intent on breaking the rules of reality in this re-telling of Oppenheimer’s life, but she never quite breaks the bonds of dullness.

Custom Made’s The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer continues an extended run through May 2 at 965 Mission St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-25. Visit for information.

Review: `A New Brain’

Continues through Aug. 16 at Custom Stage, Off-Market Theatre

Benjamin Pither (center, in gown) is Gordon Schwinn, a man who needs a new brain in William Finn’s A New Brain, in a production from San Francisco’s Custom Made Theatre Company.

Finn’s `Brain’ pulses with vigor and vitality

William Finn’s A New Brain is a little treasure that slipped through New York and is finally getting its due in small productions around the country.

At Lincoln Center in 1998, it was clear that Finn, the composer of Falsettos and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, had written a very personal musical about being diagnosed with a life-threatening brain condition.

But since then, the gems in Finn’s score have begun to shine even brighter.

San Francisco’s Custom Made Theatre Company is in the midst of A New Brain, and their production amply demonstrates what’s great about the show (and what’s not, but that’s of minor interest).

Artistic director Brian Katz is at the helm of this nine-person musical, and at the center of the production are two massive talents. First is music director/pianist Rona Siddiqui, who sits center stage in an awkward, rotating “orchestra pit” and plays beautifully almost nonstop for 90 minutes.

Music is fully part of the story as main character Gordon makes his living writing ditties for a children’s TV show starring a frog named Mr. Bungee. The act of songwriting becomes the ultimate leap of creative faith as Gordon has to decide how he wants to use his talent: for the despotic frog or for the nurturing of his own creative soul.

Having Siddiqui at the center of that battle, playing Finn’s gorgeous, funny, sometimes bizarre music keeps attention fully focused right where it should be.

The other major talent is in the center role of Gordon. Benjamin Pither is one of those singing actors whose work is so solid, so vocally assured you never worry for a minute whether he can handle it and just relax into the performance and the character.

That’s a huge advantage in a small production like this. Pither, even when wearing a hospital gown and receiving a sponge bath, commands the stage without overpowering it. We come to love Gordon and his neuroses and creative soul searching.

Finn’s score is at its best in the group numbers “Heart and Music,” “Sitting Becalmed in the Lee of Cuttyhunk” and “I Feel So Much Spring.” Along with the lovely duet “Sailing” (between Pither and Cameron Weston as Gordon’s boyfriend, Roger), and a mother’s torch song for her ailing son, “The Music Still Plays On” (nicely performed by Pat Christenson), these songs are among the most moving Finn has written.

There are also songs that feel like they’re from a different musical. Finn incorporates a homeless woman (well played here by Lisa-Marie Newton) into the story, but she never makes much sense in the overall arc of the story. And aside from “nice nurse” Richard (David Fierro), the medical staff (played by Charles Evans and Giana DeGeisco) don’t have clear enough characters and seem more like excuses to beef up the ensemble.

Marci Ring’s set turns the Custom Stage in the Off Market Theatre Complex into a brightly colored children’s room. It’s a small, multi-level space, and with nine performers on it, it gets crowded. And director Katz hasn’t always found the best configuration for his actors, especially when they attempt to execute Katie Kimball’s choreography.

But the energy is right, and the cast attacks the material with vigor. Even the not-so-great numbers come across well, and the show’s 90 minutes fly by. There’s real uplift at show’s end, and the heralding of spring, both as a season and as an attitude toward life, is genuinely moving.

A New Brain continues through Aug. 16 at the Custom Stage, 965 Mission St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$30. Call 1-800-838-3006 or visit