While Iran’s nuclear ambitions weighed heavily on the minds of many Israeli voters as they went to the polls this week, a play opened in New York that asks whether or not two wealthy Jewish brothers from the Upper West Side should have invented the atom bomb in the first place. Jack Karp’s new drama, “Irreversible,” centers on J. Robert Oppenheimer (Jordan Kaplan) and his younger brother, Frank (Josh Doucette) who beat out the Nazis in the race to build the atom bomb only to be staggered by its power of destruction and to oppose the creation of the even more powerful hydrogen bomb. The play, which is directed by Melanie Moyer Williams, runs through March 29 at the 14th Street Y.
Like last year’s “Atomic,” a musical that also focused on the Manhattan Project, “Irreversible” brings to light the moral quandaries faced by the Oppenheimers and their colleagues, including the part-Jewish, Danish physicist Niels Bohr (Dan Odell.) It begins in the summer of 1944, as the Oppenheimers finally hit on a workable design, even as Robert is distracted by threats of suicide from his mistress, Jean Tatlock (Amelia Mathews), a psychiatrist who had tried to get him involved with the Communist Party. In the second act, the action moves backward, as the brothers vainly try to put the atomic genie back in the bottle.
Karp, whose day job is copy-editing at UJA-Federation of New York, has written three earlier plays, including “Incendiary Agents,” about draft board raids during the Vietnam War. In an interview, he told The Jewish Week that while Robert Oppenheimer is known as the “father” of the atomic bomb, Frank’s role has been “downplayed, if not squelched,” because Frank was blacklisted as a Communist and was forced to resign from his position on the faculty of the University of Minnesota. (However, as K.C. Cole recounts in fascinating detail in his 2009 biography, “Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens,” Frank later founded the San Francisco Exploratorium, the first hands-on science museum for children.)
In the playwright’s view, “the slow burning of the brothers’ creative process” led to a catastrophic conflagration. “You need to stop things before they build enough momentum,” Karp observed, pointing to alarming parallels between current concerns about both Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs and the issues that bedeviled the Oppenheimers. “We need to make these decisions over and over again,” Karp said. “The temptation of a weapon like this will never fade.”
“Irreversible,” which is presented by the Red Fern Theatre Company, runs through March 29 at the 14th Street Y, 344 East 14th Street (between First and Second avenues). Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. with an additional performance on Monday, March 23 at 7 p.m. For tickets, $25, call TheaterMania at (212) 352-3101 or visit theatermania.com.