The Half-Life of Marie Curie

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Photo: Joan Marcus Review
As might be expected, there are explosions galore in Lauren Gunderson’s “The Half-Life of Marie Curie,” a brilliantly acted two-hander now having its world premiere at the Audible Theatre at the Minetta Lane Theatre. In exploring the friendship between Curie (Francesca Faridany), the two-time Nobel Prize winner (for her discovery of Radium), and her longtime friend, the noted English scientist, Hertha Ayrton (Kate Mulgrew), the prolific Gunderson lobs bomb after bomb throughout the show’s 85 minutes. But even if these outbursts are merely verbal, they often create quite a visceral reaction in the audience.

Many of them are quite funny, while some are deadly serious – and they cover everything from the rampant misogyny in the early 20th century male-dominated world of science to the questionable morals of journalists, who as the play begins are trying to destroy the reputation of the widowed Madame Curie over her affair with the still-married (and considerably younger) Paul Langevin.

Sadly if inevitably, though, the two women save their strongest attacks for each other (fortunately, though, only in one scene) which begin after Hertha assails Marie for constantly carrying a small vial of Radium on her body. It is of double concern to the older woman since Marie has brought it to Hertha’s house (where she has come to escape her tormentors in France) and because Hertha suspects it is the cause of Marie’s constant illness. (Both women’s residences are rendered as the same set by the talented Rachel Hauck).

Under Gaye Taylor Upchurch’s solid direction, the show moves quite quickly, even if one can’t notice how superficial and repetitive it often is, in large part due to the excellent work of its stars. Faridany brings tremendous pathos to her role, emphasizing Curie’s disbelief that all of her accomplishments – as well as her young childrens’ well-being -- could be completely jeopardized by nothing more than a consensual love affair. (As is pointed out, the Nobel Prize committee insisted she should not attend the prize ceremony because of the “scandal.”) However, the accomplished actress also projects her character’s inner strength, so even if we didn’t know her real history, we realize this period in her life will amount to little more than a mere setback.

As good as Faridany is, Mulgrew (known to many for her TV work on “Ryan’s Hope” and “Star Trek: Voyager) walks off with the show with her piss-and-vinegar portrayal of the often-strident Ayrton, delivering her barbed lines with astonishingly expert comic timing, yet never becoming a caricature, and fully capturing the character’s humanity.

Moreover, in some ways because she’s playing the lesser-known of the two women Mulgrew also commands (or is it demands?) our attention. Ayrton essentially reinvented herself, changing her name from the more prosaic Sarah to a moniker she found in a Swinburne poem and denouncing her Jewish religion at the possible cost of losing her mother’s attention; she was a major activist in the English suffragette movement (as was her daughter); and her work, which focused on electric arcs and ripples in sand and water, earned her the Hewes Award from the Royal Society, an honor never-before awarded to a woman.

In fact, both of these ladies’ accomplishments (including their major efforts during World War II) make them role models for today, a point not lost on many of the young women in the audience. Yes, both died too young, but neither lived anything that really could be called a half-life.

By Brian Scott Lipton

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Kate Mulgrew and Francesca Faridany

Open/Close Dates
Opening 11/19/2019
Closing 12/21/2019

Theatre Info
Minetta Lane Theatre
18 Minetta Lane
New York, NY 10012