“People like us don’t belong anywhere,” a loquacious Albert Einstein says to great operatic soprano Marian Anderson in the new play by Marc Acito that sheds light on a little-known friendship between the two.
In acknowledging their common predicament as outsiders — he as a Jew in Nazi Germany, she as an African-American in racist 20th-century America — “Secrets of the Universe (and Other Stories)” pushes a narrative that aligns with the growing anti-Semitism, racism and incivility occurring in the United States today.
The production by Fairfax-based Hub Theatre, in conjunction with the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia, on stage through July 29, valiantly wrestles this issue into the light. But Acito’s cryptic approach, with its tangential flights of imagination, never finds its purpose. The play is unfortunately not helped by outgoing artistic director Helen Murray’s clunky staging in the modestly appointed Swayze Theater housed in a private school.
This meeting of minds — and hearts — occurred in 1937 on the occasion of Anderson’s invitation to sing in Princeton, N.J., where Einstein was a resident, having fled Germany for a post at the university in 1933. When Anderson was denied a hotel room because of her race, Einstein stepped up, offering her a place to stay. A supporter of the civil rights movement, he occasionally, and often quietly, acted on behalf of African Americans as a member of the NAACP.
Acito contrasts Einstein’s thinking — a merging of personal experience, logic and morality — with Anderson’s different world view. The granddaughter of slaves, she rose to the heights of high art, singing across Europe before returning to the United States. Her experience as a black woman in a segregated society is meant to parallel her host’s as a Jew in Nazi Germany. Yet while both have risen to the apex in their fields, Einstein has attained acceptance, while Anderson can never escape her race to simply be known as a singer.
We first meet Einstein bantering with his officious assistant Helen (Mindy Shaw) about Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. This is an Einstein that will delight many and frustrate some by making this serious man a goof. Sasha Olinick, who casts a striking resemblance to the mustachioed, wild-hair scientist wrapped in shabby sweaters, emphasizes the man’s humor — lame jokes and all — along with his compassion and a nod to his intellect.
As Marian Anderson, Lolita Marie is initially reserved, exceedingly polite, but soon she lapses into her diva-esque demeanor — diamond broaches and fur coat included. But she never forgets her manners.
Acito aims to capture these two titanic figures in the humdrum of daily life, even its private moments. Yet does he really need a scene showing Miss Anderson on the toilet or an attack of flatulence for Einstein? Yes, these great figures are human, but these scenes add nothing to the play.
Neither do the poorly played flashbacks and imagined scenes. These moments do little to illuminate this meeting of minds and hearts and merely distract from the central point of the play — how their friendship grows, even during an era when blacks and whites, Jews and Christians, weren’t meant to intermingle, let alone forge steadfast friendships.
It becomes evident from the outset how much Anderson and Einstein come to like one another. They trade puns and musical-sounding phrases, talk about love, morality, life, friendship, even baseball — Anderson is a fan while Einstein has little interest. This modestly small dramatic portrait feels occasionally intimate but not profound. Their repartee is smart but lacks punch. While it’s easy to like both Anderson and Einstein and appreciate their out-of-the-ordinary friendship, playwright Acito and director Murray missed moments to delve further into the minds of these two icons.
Einstein reached out to Anderson because he felt the sting of being a Jew in Germany. His hospitality over their 15-year friendship — until his death — though. is not without admonitions. Their conversation grows heated when he encourages Anderson to refuse to sing in segregated concert halls in the South and beyond. (Remember, Constitution Hall wouldn’t allow her to sing so the Roosevelt administration arranged for her concert to be performed on a stage on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, just a few years after Anderson and Einstein met.) Einstein admonishes her that not speaking out explicitly on segregation and race makes her also complicit in the problem. Anderson forcefully disabuses him of his high-minded values by detailing the daily indignities she suffers as a black woman navigating a white male world.
“Secrets of the Universe” is a modestly interesting play that sheds light on a little-known chapter in the lives of two great Americans. This historic episode most likely would be consigned to a biographical footnote if Acito hadn’t resuscitated the work — for better or worse. Alas, the play stumbles with its puzzling imagined scenes and added characters, who draw the focus away from Einstein and Anderson.
“Secrets of the Universe (and Other Songs)” through July 29, The Hub Theatre at the New School, 9431 Silver King Court, Fairfax; tickets: $22-$32; call 703-674-3177 or visit thehubtheatre.org.