Most folks know Marie Curie as the famed French-Polish scientist who won two Nobel Prizes for her groundbreaking research on radioactivity. But there was another, even more fascinating side of Curie — adulterous home-wrecker — that’s rarely mentioned in textbooks. This dimension of Curie is currently being brought to light in Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie, an absorbing new play by Tower Heist star and science enthusiast Alan Alda, playing at L.A.’s Geffen Playhouse through Dec. 11.
Mind you, science is still at the center of the play, but the passion in the show’s title refers to both Curie’s work and the men in her life. The action begins in 1898 Paris as Marie (Breaking Bad‘s Anna Gunn, adopting a believable Polish accent) and her scientist husband, Pierre (Star Trek‘s John de Lancie), are making major strides in their quest to isolate radium, the element they jointly discovered. As evidenced by their inability to keep their hands off each other, the pair are deeply in love and share everything — professional and personal. They even jointly battle with the Nobel Prize committee to insure the award goes to both of them, instead of just Pierre.
When Pierre tragically dies, Curie takes up with the French physicist Paul Langevin (Dan Donohue), a close friend who is already married. And this is when the play really heats up, as Curie fights off detractors and wrings her hands over a deluge of bad press brought on by Langevin’s fuming terror of a wife, Jeanne (brought to pitch-perfect life by the sassy Sarah Zimmerman). It’s hard to excuse Curie’s behavior, of course, but Alda convincingly presents a rounded portrait of Curie’s turmoil.
Despite the heavy subject matter, Radiance has its lighter moments — the majority of the laughs come via Gunn’s enrapturing portrait of Marie as a by-the-books stickler who fastidiously records everything, down to the weight difference of her child after breast-feeding. Under the direction of Daniel Sullivan, the rest of the performances are airtight. Thomas Lynch’s set is simple, clean, and makes smart use of projections that turn the mood in an instant. Most impressively, Alda spins a gripping story out of two potentially dry topics — science and history. You might just learn a thing or two. B+
(Tickets: geffenplayhouse.com or 310-208-5454)