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Found in translation 

The limits of a play's language

For its second production, Relativity Theatre Concern presents the world premiere of an already renowned, 42-year-old black comedy.

How? By commissioning a new translation of The Physicists by Swiss playwright Friedrich DÜrrenmatt. Plays written in English stay fixed in the mother tongue no matter how old they are, but scripts penned in other languages can be tailored for audiences of different generations and nationalities. The dialogue in a new version of Aristophanes or Moliere frequently proves more direct and accessible than Shakespeare.

Relativity co-artistic director Gabriel Dean explains that the young company tapped translator Christopher Friedenberg to stay faithful to DÜrrenmatt's German text, while producing a more "American" vernacular that would access the play's comedy more directly. The new version gives Relativity a fresh hook of an unjustly obscure classic, and such adaptations may become the company's trademark: Dean himself is translating the theater's next show, Federico Garcí Lorca's 70-year-old Spanish drama, The House of Bernarda Alba, to premiere in January.

The Physicists presents an outlandish situation in any language. A European villa serves as an asylum for three inmates, all physicists: Beutler, who thinks he's Isaac Newton; Ernesti, who thinks he's Albert Einstein; and Möbius, who has visions of King Solomon. And at least two of them may have strangled their nurses.

Relativity's production demonstrates all too clearly, however, that words are not everything. The young cast frequently overplays the material as broadly as possible. The show opens with a detective interviewing a nurse, but it resembles a bad improv of Inspector Clouseau locking horns with Young Frankenstein's Frau Blucher. Filtered through Friedenberg, The Physicists uses humor to explore the heavy issue of scientific responsibility during a global arms race, but the overacting and extraneous comic business frequently draws attention away from the text. Fortunately, Patrick Wood as Möbius appreciates that an understated performance can best serve outrageous action, and his work steadies the show in the second act.

Granted, humor doesn't always travel well outside its native lingo. Italy's Dario Fo won the 1997 Nobel Prize, yet you'd never consider him a theatrical genius based on the versions of his work produced in Atlanta. Friedenberg's Physicists keeps both DÜrrenmatt's comedy and his serious ideas intact, but the Relativity production doesn't let the script speak for itself.


Director Kenny Leon's Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun, which closed July 11, made the record books twice. In June, Phylicia Rashad became the first African-American woman to win the Tony for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play. Raisin also achieved a more specialized milestone as the second-highest weekly grossing Broadway play in history.

It's a qualified honor, comparing Raisin to other "straight" dramas or comedies, and not the long-running, blockbusting musicals like Cats. And it reflects the inflated cost of ticket prices, with Raisin's averaging about $75 per week.

But for the week ending July 4, Raisin grossed $659,000, and the only drama ever to earn more was the Plymouth Theatre's recent all-star production of Long Day's Journey Into Night with Brian Dennehy, Vanessa Redgrave, Robert Sean Leonard and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Financial success should not be equated with an artistic triumph, but given that most Broadway shows don't recoup their investments (Raisin and Avenue Q count among the few this season that did), Leon can be forgiven for basking in the Sun.

Sudden curtain

Actors Theatre of Atlanta brought its 2004 repertory season to an abrupt conclusion July 25, closing the comedy The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). Housed at Lovett School's Fuqua Center, the small company has staged summer productions since 2001, and had planned to run Works in repertory with the cross-generational drama Three Days of Rain through Aug. 28.

Producing artistic director Jay Freer says that weak ticket sales for Works and the June production, Underneath the Lintel, as well as lower donations than expected fueled the decision to close in July while still in the black.

Off Script is a biweekly column on the Atlanta theater scene.

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