Bell

by John Stoltenberg

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

Having heard tantalizing details about Bell in a pre-opening interview, I attended the National Geographic Live production with the sort of eager/anxious anticipation one might have watched the Silver Dart, a flying contraption Bell invented, take off on its test flight.

Will it have lift-off? Will it fly? Will it stay airborne till landing?

Among the many fun infobits we learn in Bell, a one-man play about Alexander Graham Bell, is that Alex (as intimates knew him) had a seriously competitive streak. He resented being known only as “the telephone man” whilst his nemesis Thomas Edison got tons of attention for a host of inventions. And as Alex peevishly tells us in Jim Lehrer’s fascinating playscript, the Silver Dart got off the ground two months after the Wright Brothers beat him to it. Well, hells bells, Alex came up with a whole bunch of cool stuff too! Yet he’s remembered for one ringy-dingy! And as is revealed to us with thoroughgoing theatricality through Rick Foucheaux masterfully nuanced portrayal, Bell harbored a begrudging drat! about that up until the day he died.

At rise, on a spectacularly apt set (designed by Tony Cisek), littered with tactile evidence of Bell’s perfervid imagination, we find Bell on his deathbed, talking to his beloved wife and lifelong helpmeet, Mabel—who, we learn later, was literally reading his lips, for she was deaf. Suddenly there comes a shift, an actor’s artful transformation enhanced by fluidly specific lighting (designed by Dan Covey), and Bell the character begins talking directly to us the audience in the contemporary voice of a man who wants to explain himself to history and who decides to do so by winningly engaging us in what becomes by turns reminiscence, reverie, rant, and rip-roaring good storytelling.

We get inside his head. And then he gets inside ours.

When Bell begins to evoke Mabel’s memory, a most moving stage picture appears—with stunning authentic-source  projections (designed by Jared Mezzocchi), accompanied by beautifully time-transporting music (in Matthew M. Nielson’s sound design). Suddenly the inner emotion of their marriage—a great love story if ever there was one—fills the stage, and Mabel comes to life as the true tailwind and stabilizer behind Bell’s lofty genius.

There are also lots of jokes. Really funny one-liners. Plus some hilariously anachronistic gags about the cellphones and smartphones in our pockets. At one point Bell asks us to turn them on—which has got to be a first in modern theater. And as silly as that sounds, it’s exactly apropos all the material Lehrer has mined to make this man ring for us a whole new bell.

To be honest, this oddly originated contraption—it would never have been put together had it not fit nicely with the 125th anniversary of the National Geographic Society, of which Bell was second president—had for me a slightly unsteady liftoff. At the beginning, I sensed Lehrer flipping from notecard to notecard in his obviously assiduous research in order to pack in exposition. The pretext that the mind of Bell itself was easily distracted and often free-associated from inspiration to inspiration gives Lehrer plenty of character motivation for jumpy backstorying, and Foucheux performs it all with absorbing aplomb. And quite frankly, I’m not sure but what this edutainment entry wasn’t the best of all possible ways to start off. But for me Bell didn’t really take flight until Lehrer and Foucheux launch into the play’s fully rounded and immersive stories. The first of these is about Bell’s effort to locate the bullet lodged somewhere inside the recently shot President Garfield using his new-fangled metal detector—which, Bell tells us in one of many amazing asides, is a forerunner to the electronic strip searches we endure in airports. There are so many oh-wow moments from then on that we forget completely that this airborne wonder ever sputtered.

Near the end there comes a passage that easily qualifies as the “warts-and-all” piece of the portrait. It would be unfair to give it away, but it’s clearly a dark patch of Bell’s past, one his contemporary self agonizes over. And though it cannot but have given keepers of the golden-framed National Geographic brand some cause to wince, its presence in this play produces a most uplifting effect. We’ve come to know this man’s warm and loyal heart, this man’s quirky and self-rightous peeves, this man’s prolific and visionary mind—and now we get to meet his conscience. In all its retrospective remorse. Right then and there on stage. And it’s a brilliant instance of what theater does best of all: keep our full humanity alive and well.

From love story to levity and everywhere else this illuminating play takes us, director Jeremy Skidmore control-towers a fleet of top-flight stagecraft artists and a superb solo aviator with surety, subtlety, and surprise. This production is the peer of anything on offer in town. And one cannot help but wonder whether it will get the life beyond Nat Geo that it deserves.

I’ll take a flyer and hope yes.

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