The titular character of E.E. Wade’s highly original, highly entertaining The Mad Mad Scientist Play is Dr. Ron Mallet, a professor of quantum physics. When we first meet Dr. Ron (Michael D. Baldwin), he’s on his way to work. We later learn that our scientist is one of two African-American professors in the Physics Department at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. During his ride, our restless prof — equipped for his morning commute with his headphones and thermos of coffee– engages in some small talk with the salty bus driver (Bergin Michaels). The two men participate in some brutal but admittedly hilarious banter about “talking white”, urban decay, Obama, and more. Their dialogue is rough, almost bordering on mutually antagonistic. When he finally reaches the school, we learn that Dr. Ron is facing a bigger issue than getting to work on time– and it’s one that could seriously affect his professional future. Ron has a tense relationship with the Physics Department’s OTHER African-American professor, the no-nonsense Dr. Laveada Butler (Jacqueline Springfield). Laveada views Ron’s classroom presentation about “time travel” as little more than science fiction, and claims that he is “drowning in a sea of his own untapped potential”. Laveada gives Ron a combination of pep talk and stern warning: His tenure may be threatened if he doesn’t “get serious”. As Ron begs for more time to prove himself, we sense that the pair’s relationship is more complex than just being academic peers. Despite their bickering, there’s clearly a romantic undercurrent running between Dr. Ron and Dr. Laveada.
Ron, however, has more ambitious plans in the works. In addition to teaching students and engaging in a delicate mating dance of sorts with his fellow prof, he is spending his spare time and energy trying to fully realize his dream– by creating a top secret time machine. His time machine is embodied in aesthetically pleasing human form by Jerome Brooks, Jr. (Brooks’ skilled wordless acting becomes increasingly wordy as he becomes more “human” than “machine”.) Thanks to daily doses of its creator’s DNA, Ron’s brainchild is quickly developing a brain of its own. As the scientist becomes more immersed in his invention, strange things start to happen. At a surreal “tea party”, Ron reluctantly gets reacquainted with his sassy and somewhat Machiavellian imaginary childhood friend Charles (Lev Harvey), as well as a Playboy-esque sexy bunny (Springfield) and a soft-spoken talking goat (Michaels). Is Ron’s Freudian trip to this Wonderland of sorts just a dream? Or is he perhaps, as Gnarls Barkley would say, going “crazy” from his obsession with time travel? Is Dr. Ron’s increasingly independent and smart (and smart-mouthed) humanoid time machine possibly a representation of something deeper? Is Charles, the imaginary childhood friend, really “imaginary”? Just about the only easy question is “Is life in Detroit as rough as they say?” The answer is: “Even rougher…”
Inspired by real-life historical figures, The Mad Mad Scientist Play smoothly balances its fantastical elements with some very authentic human insights. This is thanks to E.E. Wade’s thoughtful script and Josh F.S. Moser’s fluid direction. What is real and what is fantasy almost becomes secondary, however, to the revelation of Dr. Ron’s motivations at the play’s tense, provocative conclusion. The audience is indeed rewarded for its commitment to the story– but not before giving their neurons a good workout. A lot of the play’s aforementioned authenticity comes in the “slice-of-life”-style conversations between Michael D. Baldwin’s Ron and Bergin Michael’s bus driver, as well as Jacqueline Springfield-as-Laveada’s dialogue about the place of black women in our increasingly challenging world. An example is when Laveada declares, “Black women don’t want to be strong ALL the time. Maybe we just have to be because everyone is so busy telling us who we are, that no one’s actually there to help us when we need it. It would be nice to just… exist. It would be nice to just be loved for all that I already am.” All five actors successfully blend comedy and drama, and exhibit an energetic and committed presence on stage. The production makes the most of the intimate space, and the Set/Lighting/Projection/Sound team proves that a few creative touches can really go a long way in creating a superior theater experience.
13th Street Repertory Theatre and The Gnome Haus present E.E. Wade’s The Mad Mad Scientist Play, directed by Josh F.S. Moser. The play runs through Sunday, June 10th at 13th Street Repertory Theatre, 50 West 13th Street, New York City. Visit www.GnomeHaus.org for tickets and more info.