April 19, 1999

Leaping To the Stage From Tragic Headlines


 Is there a more timely play in New York right now than ''Tesla's Letters''? 

 This well-written, well-constructed drama by Jeffrey Stanley is no less than an anguished cri de coeur for American intervention to halt slaughter in the Balkans. Though the play set in 1997 after the Serbian infliction of death and destruction on Croatia, its passion and yearning for an end to war and mass death remain applicable and compelling as Serbia overruns Kosovo. 

Besides constituting pertinent, intelligent, instructive, well-acted, well-directed and often witty and suspenseful theater, ''Tesla's Letters,'' through April 26 at the Ensemble Studio Theater, represents an auspicious 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 productions, commissions to playwrights and readings, that explore science and technology. 

 In keeping with that enterprise, ''Tesla's Letters,'' smartly 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 Belgrade. 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, gave the world the alternating electrical current it runs on, developed the wireless 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 smeared him in an effort to discredit Tesla's threat to his less efficient direct current electrical system. Tesla, who held hundreds of patents, died broke and alone. 

  ''Tesla saw the 20th century unfolding,'' says Biljana (Judith 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 it.'' 

  Although Daisy arrives in Belgrade believing she has permission to examine the museum's archives for her dissertation on Tesla's life away from the laboratory, she has not reckoned with the director,  Dragan (Victor Slezak), a Serb with family in Croatia.

  He will put Daisy to tests: of her knowledge of Yugoslav history, 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 has 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 ends not with a whimper but a bang. 

 Led by the strong, highly charged performance of Mr. Slezak and the firm, bright portrayal of Ms. Naughton, ''Tesla's Letters'' provides a multitude of rewards. 

 By Jeffrey Stanley; directed by Curt Dempster; production stage manager, John C. McNamara; sets by Paula Sjoblom; lighting by Jeff Croiter; costumes by Julie Doyle; sound by Robert Gould. Presented by the the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Ensemble Studio Theater, Mr. Dempster, artistic director; M. Edgar Rosenblum, executive director; Jamie Richards, executive producer. At 549 West 52d Street, Clinton. 

WITH: Victor Slezak (Dragan Milincevic), Judith Roberts (Biljana), Keira Naughton (Daisy Archer) and Grant James Varjas (Zoran Jelecic). 


Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company