“The Full-Life of Hertha Ayrton” would have been a difficult title. Instead, playwright Lauren Gunderson has gone with the catchier “The Half-Life of Marie Curie,” which opened Tuesday at Off Broadway’s Minetta Lane Theatre. Audible presents.
Clearly, the two-time winner of the Nobel Prize for her pioneering research on radioactivity is the bigger marquee name. Ayrton was merely a British engineer, mathematician, physicist, inventor and suffragette who received the Hughes Medal by the Royal Society for her work on electric arcs and ripples in sand and water. She also invented a big fan that cleared the trenches of toxic gas during World War I.
Does the other “half-life” of Gunderson’s title refer to Ayrton, the devoted friend who gave Curie protection and comfort during the Pole’s affair with a married man, a scandal that clouded her second Nobel Prize? The half-life of Curie definitely refers to the lost research, money and reputation of this gifted physicist-chemist, as well as the half-life of uranium, which ranges from 25,000 to 4.5 billion years, depending on what kind you’re dealing with.
Despite Curie’s name in the title, Kate Mulgrew’s butch Ayrton is the major attraction. Playing Curie, Francesca Faridany must contend with a character who’s never feeling great due to that vial of radioactive stuff she carries around her neck. Also, she’s insufferably weepy over not being with the man she loves, and he just might have impregnated his wife! Gunderson lavishes all her best retorts and epigrams on Ayrton, and Mulgrew knows just what to do with them. She’s reminiscent of George Sanders in “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” It’s also possible to see a touch of that independent puritan Katharine Hepburn peeking through. The actor delivered a great Kate in “Tea at Five.” She’s even better and more fun in “The Half-Life of Marie Curie.” Mulgrew used to be a mezzo, now she’s a true basso, and uses that voice to stupendous comic effect.
Gaye Taylor Upchurch’s direction can’t suppress Mulgrew or pump up Faridany’s performance enough to make it an even playing field. As written by Gunderson, Curie is simply a wet blanket, and it’s the perfect metaphor that the character takes a swim in the ocean with all her clothes on.
“Marie Curie” contains several nice comments about her dead husband, Pierre Curie. Otherwise, the play is chock full of witty complaints about the male establishment, as if these two brilliant women had nothing better to do than kvetch all day. Gunderson puts us in that comfortable position of being superior to early-20th-century wrongdoers who canceled Curie’s career. Much less comfortable would be a play that looked at our current Cancel Culture that banishes artists from the Metropolitan Opera and prevents Woody Allen’s latest film from being shown in the United States.