By SCOTT BABA
Art and Entertainment Editor
It’s always an interesting thought experiment to consider what it would have been like if historical figures from different spheres of influence met each other. What would they think of each other? What would they have to say?
That’s the premise of “Insignificance,” the new play currently running at the Campbell Theater in Martinez.
Written in 1982 by playwright Terry Johnson, the play imagines a scenario in which Marilyn Monroe (Jennifer Lynn Brown Peabody), fresh from her famous “flying skirt” photo shoot, decides to stop by the hotel room of Albert Einstein (Jerry Motta), where they spend an evening discussing fame, philosophy, and the theory of relativity.
Also hanging around are Senator Joe McCarthy (Randy Anger), who is attempting to coerce Einstein into supporting the House Un-American Activities Committee by handing over his research, and Monroe’s semi-estranged husband, retired baseball player Joe DiMaggio (Ryan Terry), hoping to get Monroe to come home with him.
The characters are never actually named, as such. Throughout they are only ever referred to by their titles – the professor, the actress, the ballplayer, and the senator.
In terms of plot, that’s about it. By and large, this isn’t a story driven by action or narrative tension. McCarthy’s machinations do eventually come to something of a climax, as do Monroe and DiMaggio’s marital problems. But those all feel like secondary interest’s to Johnson’s play.
Instead, it concerns itself mostly the inner lives of its characters – with their thoughts, their feelings, and the ways they interact with one another. As characters come and go from Einstein’s hotel room, they spar over their conflicting beliefs on a number of issues, like science, religion, sexuality and celebrity.
Throughout, each character gets to shine, both individually and in teams of two and three, bouncing of one another and displaying new sides and angles as the combinations change. There’s a lot of laughs to be had in those interactions, although director Edwin Peabody wisely chooses to keep things grounded and let the human drama come out.
Einstein is gentle and wise, exactly as you would hope the great man to be. With Monroe he is patient and encouraging. With McCarthy he is defiant and protective of both his work and his integrity. Motta plays him with a sparkle of dry wit that raises the character from interesting to truly endearing.
Motta, who has played Einstein before in another play, said that it was an interesting role to explore.
“It’s been a lot of fun just getting inside Einstein’s head,” said Motta. “Not only the philosphy and the physics, but the fun aspect of him – what he enjoys, and how he figures things out.”
Monroe is coy and seductive and smart as a whip. Over the course of the play she wrestles with her role and identity – as wife, as woman, as national icon and as an intellectual too often underestimated as just a pretty face.
Jennifer Lynn Brown Peabody said she did a fair amount of research ahead of taking on the part, and that playing such a complex and dramatic role was a new challenge for her.
“It’s a really great part. It’s a different type of part than I’ve ever had,” she said. “Normally I get cast in the comical parts, but this one has a little more meat on it, and it’s a more serious show.”
Terry’s DiMaggio is loud, angry, jealous and dumb. He’s an incredible physical presence in an otherwise fairly cerebral play, and seems to think with his fists first and his brains second, if at all. And yet there’s also a vulnerable tenderness to him, both in his desperate, sincere attempts to understand his wife and his surprising warmth towards Einstein, who he initially suspects is sleeping with Monroe.
Terry said that finding that balance for DiMaggio was both the great challenge of playing the character and what made it so interesting.
“We had to get a sense of who me and Marilyn are just being the two of us, how we are together naturally,” Terry said. “Combining that, the little tender moments, with the rest of my dialogue, which tends to be really loud and angry – I think that was the tricky part. Getting the little things that symbolize our relationship right.”
Anger plays McCarthy as an amiable thug, who manages to convey sullen menace with a bright bit of banter and a friendly smile. When he shares a scene with DiMaggio he’s smugly superior, and with Monroe he becomes flustered and erratic.
“It’s always good to get to play a bad guy,” said Anger, “especially a bad guy that’s so well known, and really has no redeeming value to the world.”
Anger added that the role was particularly enjoyable for the range he got to express as he intereacted with each of the other characters.
“I get to play a lot of different colors, which makes it a lot more fun,” he said. “It’s not Snidely Whiplash through the entire show – I’ve got little cats I’m toying with, and people that I’m manipulating, and I get to be taken down a peg. So it’s great fun, it’s really great fun.”
Director Edwin Peabody said that exploring all these intersecting relationships was central to the play.
“These people are human, and the neat challenge about this play for me – the biggest challenge – was: ‘How do we define these relationships between each other?’” Peabody said. “It’s a beautiful statement about how knowledge and truth and celebrity all meet in a spot, and the conflicts that come with that, and the triumphs that also happen as a result of that. It’s a beautiful play about the human spirit.”
Ultimately, “Insignificance” is a charming, thoughtful character piece, and is well worth the watch.