A conversation with a Nobel-winning polymath: QED
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  February 11, 2009

UNBELIEVABLY INQUISITIVE: Christopher Price as Richard Feynman.

One of the formative puzzles for young Richard Feynman came from his father, a uniform manufacturer in Queens: How would you explain sleep to a Martian? From an early age, the great physicist Feynman's approach to rationality had an eccentric tilt, with a curiosity for the world that went well beyond science: Yes, Feynman helped build the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, and later won the Nobel Prize for the theory of quantum electrodynamics, but he also played the bongos devotedly, cracked safes for fun (not profit), and was determined to visit the forgotten land of Tuva (of throat-singing fame). Christopher Price portrays this charming renaissance maverick in the dramatic portrait QED, by Peter Parnell. The nearly one-man show, culled from the words of the scientist himself (as well as from the book Tuva or Bust!, by Feynman's buddy Ralph Leighton), is on stage now at the Theater Project, in Brunswick, under the direction of Al Miller.

Our time with Feynman is an extended chat in his office at Cal-Tech (a comfy balance of academic bric-a-brac, institutional furnishings, and anthropological oddities, designed by Price), where he talks right to us about everything on his plate: among other things, his upcoming cameo as the Chief of Bali Hai in the school's student production of South Pacific; his contribution to a report on the recent Challenger disaster; the Tuvans whom he and Ralph have just flown into Pasadena; and his options for dealing with the alarmingly large tumor in his kidney. These threads interweave in relaxed fashion and real time, trailing off and picking up again as Feynman reminisces, philosophizes, draws scientific diagrams on the chalkboard, and fields a series of phones calls from his wife, his doctors, a fed from the Challenger commission, and fellow Tuva-phile Ralph.

Feynman is the ultimate professor to drink beers with and revere: He's affable, unorthodox, and utterly un-ensconced in academia. Price gets his conversational tone just right; nails the working-class, outer-borough New York accent; and laces his easy patter with comfortable beats, stutters, and ums. He does an excellent job conveying a sense of the man's quick mental gears turning as he veers from subject to subject, and downplays the emotional, life-and-death freight of his cancer decisions. Instead, what registers is the enthusiasm of his curiosity for all problems in need of solving, and indeed toward most everything.

One result of his understatement, however, is that the show often seems to glide by in a single mood, of casual, good-humored ramblings. A couple exceptions do change the tenor compellingly: Price has some fine moments of subtly played disquiet (on the legacy of Los Alamos), grief (for his dead first wife), and fear (when the pain in his gut reminds him of his stakes); and a visit from a student, Miriam (the lively Abbie Killeen), also stirs him. But generally, the emotional breaks are few. To be sure, Feynman's puzzle-master equanimity is part of one of the play's main themes: The curious puzzle-solver can get so caught up in the beauty of solving the puzzle — whether nuclear fission or his own cancer treatment — that he forgets its larger emotional or moral implications; that, as the self-aware Feynman puts it, "he loses touch with the world outside of the puzzle." That remove can be troublesome, or it can be salvation, and Price gives us a great sense of Feynman's blithe fascinations.

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