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But Atomic---a new rock musical by Danny Ginges, Gregory Bonsignore, and Philip Foxman that began performances yesterday at Theatre Row---wants to revive those frantic feelings. With a cracked sense of reality that includes gyrating lab technicians, rocking government officials, and even Robert Oppenheimer belting a vampy number to the commission putting him on trial, the show drops the creators of the bomb into a fever dream. As they grapple with what they're about to do to the world, the scientists and officials are surrounded by smoke machines, strobe lights, and shredding guitars.
For cast member David Abeles, who plays conflicted physicist Arthur Compton, that's the perfect context for this story. "The life and energy that come through our production in the light and sound and action all have a wild energy," he says. "And that's what we're trying to translate. This is a project where the scientists were under a high amount of pressure to perform. It was absolutely a race to build this bomb, and there was an energy that was created from that that I think suits rock music really well. There's a drive to it, a build, and that's where the grandiosity of all these effects and this approach helps the storytelling. It gives a frenetic rush to the whole evening."
Of course, that doesn't mean Abeles can just act like a crazy person for two hours and call it a day. His character is almost always rooted in grim reality, trying to navigate his sense of duty to the American government and his deep fear that the bomb will ruin society. (The real-life Compton, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1927, was eventually awarded a Medal of Merit for his work on the Manhattan Project.) The character doesn't become heightened until the second act, when he sings a song called "Method to Madness" about how this conflict is tearing him apart.
"That's a challenge because all of a sudden I have to break out of being naturalistic and try to convey that inner madness," Abeles says. "Until that, every scene I play is very straight forward."
Therefore, he has to keep an element of Compton's theatricality present in his earlier scenes, lest his big number seem disconnected from the rest of his performance. "It's always under the surface, like in everyday life," Abeles says. "I think that a lot of the time, you mask what's going on inside, so this song is like a soliloquy in Shakespeare, where all of a sudden you'll hear the inner thoughts of the character spoken out loud."
Ultimately, of course, Compton's inner demons are moot. The bomb goes off. People die. And that raises a new set of terrible facts that not only the characters have to face. We in the audience also must accept that even in 2014, we're still reaping the rewards of this particular horror. And if getting swept up in a rock musical about that uncomfortable truth feels a little awkward, a little outré, then maybe that's the point. Maybe that's another reason that an entertaining spectacle is just the right vessel for this story.
"There's a quote that happens in a voiceover that says when the bomb actually did go off, there was a sense of relief among the scientists who had been working on it for so long," Abeles says. "And there was also this sense of hilarity. It's like celebrating a job well done, but then in the bottom of your stomach and the back of your head, you have to remember what this actually is. That's what we're left with, and those are hopefully the questions that people will leave the theatre discussing."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Carol Rosegg