Mirrors up to Nature

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  July 29, 2008

Parnell’s play is set in Feynman’s California Institute of Technology office on a Saturday in 1986, two years before the scientist and teacher died at age 70, and it packs a lot into one professorial day off. Feynman works on a lecture titled “What We Know,” furiously scratching key words on a blackboard. He waxes about the Russian republic of Tuva, which he hopes to visit with friend Ralph Leighton. He bends our ear about the Manhattan Project, on which he worked in his 20s, and his dissent from the commission investigating the Challenger space-shuttle disaster. He confides that he enjoys drawing women naked, sometimes in the topless bar where he honed the skills that fed the famed Feynman Diagrams. And in the time-honored tradition of one-man shows (which this is not quite), he makes and takes a lot of phone calls, talking to, among others, Leighton and the doctors who are treating what will prove a fatal cancer.

As portrayed with an energetic, likably scattershot bluntness by Keith Jochim, Feynman is as much a force as a describer of Nature, exhibiting equally enthusiastic inquisitiveness about the behavior of atomic particles, Tuvan throat singing, the regalia in which he is to play the Chief of Bali Ha’i in a student production of South Pacific, and his own cancer. A brief late-night visit by an attractive female student provides an ambiguous and uncomfortable touch. But for the most part, QED is a portrait of a gloriously indiscriminate inquiring mind. Curiosity seems to have had the opposite effect on Feynman than on the proverbial cat, not killing but enlivening him.

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