TheatreSquared’s production of “The Half-Life of Marie Curie,” which tenderly and thoughtfully explores the human side of the legendary scientist, is unfortunately plagued by progression and sound design issues.
“The Half-Life of Marie Curie,” a one-act play by Lauren Gunderson, the country’s most-produced contemporary playwright, examines the professional and personal life of Marie Curie through the lens of her real-life friendship with fellow scientist and suffragette Hertha Ayrton. Curie, a French-Polish physicist, was the first person in history to win two Nobel Prizes after she discovered the radioactive elements polonium and radium. T2’s production is the play’s second staging since it premiered off Broadway in 2019.
“Half-Life,” particularly in its second half, packs a powerful punch with its exploration of the two characters’ bravery and resilience, the pitfalls of being a pioneering woman in a sexist society and the joys of female friendship. It also beautifully humanizes the titular character, who is often viewed one-dimensionally as the sum of her scientific breakthroughs, even though she endured many tragedies and personal setbacks as she changed the course of human history.
However, the emotional force of this particular production was overshadowed by several glaring flaws that made it difficult for me to fully enjoy and appreciate it.
I found the sound design to be the show’s most frustrating oversight. Rather than a live stream, T2’s production is presented similarly to a rented movie, with ticket-holders granted 24-hour access to a recorded performance of the play, which they can start and pause at their leisure. This is not in itself a bad idea, because it provides maximum convenience and safety for cast, crew and patrons.
However, the pre-recorded nature of the show also raised my expectations for its quality. So I was disappointed to find that there were many long periods in the performance when I was distracted by the annoying buzz of microphone feedback. There were also several scenes in which the well-meaning use of sound effects, such as hissing gaslights and crashing ocean waves, overpower the actors’ voices to the point where I had to strain to hear their dialogue.
Obviously, these issues can occur in a physical theater space, especially if one is seated in a less-than-ideal location. However, because the show was recorded rather than streamed live, I would have liked to have seen those scenes reshot or edited for audial clarity. The filmed performance includes camera manipulation and visual editing beyond what an in-person viewing experience would provide, so I’m not sure why stray or too-loud sounds could not have been edited out as well. It seems like a missed opportunity.
The show also suffers from a sluggish first half. I personally enjoy a slow burn, but this one was just too slow. While buildup is important, the pace of the show’s first 40 minutes is so tedious that it felt difficult to get invested in the story. The action is nearly non-existent, and the dialogue a bit repetitive and monotonous. Admittedly, this seems to be more an issue of writing than acting, and the play gets more engaging about halfway through, when it is revealed that the very thing which has driven Madame Curie’s career and scientific passions for years might also be slowly killing her.
The production is very well cast, with the endlessly talented Rebecca Harris giving a passionate and nuanced performance as Curie. She even convincingly manages a French-tinged Polish accent, which I found refreshing after having heard several poorly executed theatrical Eastern European accents in the past few months.
Leontyne Mbele-Mbong plays Ayrton in a surprising yet welcome incidence of cross-racial casting. For a character who is both a sharp-witted, independently minded woman, and quintessentially British, I cannot imagine a better casting choice than Mbele-Mbong, a seasoned Shakespearean actress with an impressive resume of classical theater roles. Mbele-Mbong’s skillful, almost effortless command of the role made Ayrton’s presence the highlight of the show for me. Ayrton’s character is the kind of supportive, take-no-nonsense friend every girl deserves, and Mbele-Mbong captured her essence perfectly.
Although slow and frustrating at times, “The Half-Life of Marie Curie” is a fascinating look at one of history’s greatest geniuses, approached from an angle that is too rarely explored. With two talented stars and a powerful feminist message to boot, T2’s production is certainly not without its redeeming qualities. I recommend giving the show a stream, but managing expectations. For a theater that regularly turns out show-stopping works of art, the company has fallen a bit flat this time around.
“The Half-Life of Marie Curie” runs through Dec. 20, online only. Twenty-four-hour online access to a recording of the play costs $20.