Love is Relative: New play exposes a fuzzy side to physics phenom Albert Einstein


By Jerry Tallmer

Poor Albert Einstein. Women got in his hair all his life. “I’m doing just fine,” he told a visiting Paul Robeson, “considering that I have triumphantly survived Nazism and two wives.”

That amusing line, says playwright J. B. Edwards, is not actually in Einstein’s letters to Johanna Fantova, “but it’s in the popular lexicon, like ‘God doesn’t play dice with the universe.’ ”

Trouble is, all his life Einstein couldn’t do without women. Even in the final 18 months of his life, two of them, librarian Fantova and secretary Helen Dukas, each 20 years younger than himself, battled for his attentions and his welfare in his house in Princeton. Or so Edwards has posited it in “Einstein’s Secret Letters: A Love Story,” running through this Sunday, October 2 at SoHo Rep.

In a Princeton University bulletin, Princeton graduate Edwards (who also has a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Minnesota) read about the recent release of Fantova’s diary and a trove of letters the great man sent her that she’d saved for 25 years. Edwards and actress Memory Contento went down to Princeton, and “were given the white-glove treatment” in order to hold those letters in their hands.

“He had known Johanna all her life, ever since she was a little girl when he used to go to a salon on Wenceslas Square in Prague.” Years later Einstein helped her get a job in the Princeton Library and Fantova saved his letters. “My idea,” says the playwright, “was that these letters show Einstein as a man – like you and me – and what a piece of work that is, right?

“The arc of the play is that for the personally and professionally isolated Einstein, whose great discoveries had been made in 1918, here was a woman he could talk to, go sailing with; an intimate friend. Now, what do I mean by intimate? Nothing specific,” says Edwards. “But ‘pen,’ in German, is feminine, and ‘pencil’ is masculine, and somewhere he writes: ‘We are like a little pen and pencil – we fit together.’ She was his ‘little mimosa.’ ” She also cut his hair.

And the antipathy, in your play, between the two ladies, warm-hearted Johanna and cold, bossy Helen Dukas, keeper of the flame?

“That’s a dramatic tool. The whole deal is: ‘I am a scientist and a MAN, not a god.’”

Memory Contento plays Johanna, Waltrudis Buck plays Helen, Marvin Starkman plays Einstein, Robert Kya Hill plays Paul Robeson. The director is G. Beaudin. Shake well, and you have the General and Special Theories of Relativity.

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