April 19, 1999
To the Stage From Tragic Headlines
By LAWRENCE VAN GELDER
Is there a more timely play in New York right now
This well-written, well-constructed drama by Jeffrey
no less than an anguished cri de coeur for American intervention to
slaughter in the Balkans. Though the play set in 1997 after the Serbian
infliction of death and destruction on Croatia, its passion and
for an end to war and mass death remain applicable and compelling as
Besides constituting pertinent, intelligent, instructive,
well-directed and often witty and suspenseful theater, ''Tesla's
through April 26 at the Ensemble Studio Theater, represents an
beginning for a project called First Light.
This $500,000, three-year collaboration between the
theater and the
Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is a festival of new works, in the form of
commissions to playwrights and readings, that explore science and
In keeping with that enterprise, ''Tesla's
directed by Curt Dempster, the artistic director of the Ensemble Studio
Theater, is built around the visit of Daisy Archer (Keira Naughton), a
young American doctoral candidate, to the Nikola Tesla museum in
Tesla (1856-1943), as the play deftly makes clear, was a Croatian-born
Serb who was one of the most remarkable men of science.
This genius immigrated to the United States in 1884,
world the alternating electrical current it runs on, developed the
transmission of electricity and perhaps, as the play suggests, a death
ray capable of bringing instantaneous death to millions.
He also incurred the enmity of Thomas A. Edison, who
in an effort to discredit Tesla's threat to his less efficient direct
electrical system. Tesla, who held hundreds of patents, died broke and
''Tesla saw the 20th century unfolding,'' says
Roberts), the white-haired woman who is apparently the secretary to the
museum's director. ''He didn't like what he saw, and wanted to change
Although Daisy arrives in Belgrade believing she
to examine the museum's archives for her dissertation on Tesla's life
from the laboratory, she has not reckoned with the director,
(Victor Slezak), a Serb with family in Croatia.
He will put Daisy to tests: of her knowledge of
of her knowledge of Tesla, of her willingness to risk her life and her
American innocence of death and destruction to venture into Croatia to
gather photographic evidence to determine whether Tesla's birthplace
survived war's devastation.
On the way she will encounter a young man named
Zoran (Grant James
Varjas), who becomes her guide. Although ''Tesla's Letters'' is a drama
of ideas about war and peace, the exercise of humanity and the uses of
science, it is a measure of its appeal as theater that its first act
not with a whimper but a bang.
Led by the strong, highly charged performance of Mr.
the firm, bright portrayal of Ms. Naughton, ''Tesla's Letters''
a multitude of rewards.
By Jeffrey Stanley; directed by Curt Dempster; production stage
manager, John C. McNamara; sets by Paula Sjoblom; lighting by Jeff
costumes by Julie Doyle; sound by Robert Gould. Presented by the the
P. Sloan Foundation and the Ensemble Studio Theater, Mr. Dempster,
director; M. Edgar Rosenblum, executive director; Jamie Richards,
producer. At 549 West 52d Street, Clinton.
WITH: Victor Slezak (Dragan Milincevic), Judith Roberts
Naughton (Daisy Archer) and Grant James Varjas (Zoran Jelecic).