In the 2006 film, The Prestige, Serbian-born Physicist and Inventor Nikola Tesla (played by David Bowie) serves as a sort of ‘Mad Scientist’ inspiration and mentor to a competitively obsessed magician/illusionist portrayed by Hugh Jackman. It’s probably not a complete accident then that in the eponymous new play (written by Sheri Graubert and Directed by Sanja Bestic) Tesla is referred to repeatedly as a ‘Magician.’ While Tesla’s scientific legacy includes contributions as varied as design of the modern alternating current (AC) electricity supply system and early developments in Remote Control and X-ray technologies, his name is perhaps best known these days for having been adopted by an ‘80s Hair Metal band. And that’s just a shame. Hopefully, Tesla will be able to move on to Broadway after its Off Broadway run, exposing a wider audience to Nikola Tesla’s genius and futuristic vision.
In this engaging play, an older Tesla (played by Jack Dimich) sits in his New York City Hotel room, kept company only by his memories and occasional visits from the Bellhop (Luka Mijatovia). There, he reflects on the accomplishments of his past while mentally confronting his many professional adversaries who exploited him with varying degrees of opportunism, indifference and cruelty. James Lee Taylor (who, if you look up any actual photos of Tesla, is a dead ringer for the inventor during his late thirties) portrays Tesla as a younger man, and carries the bulk of the action on his very capable shoulders. Over the course of ninety minutes, the story of Tesla’s amazing career unfolds in ways that are both wildly inspiring and devastatingly heartbreaking.
Taking place at a time when the world was a Wild West for Scientific invention, many inventors were coming up with similar ideas for technological advancements at the same time as their peers. Even those who managed to make it to the patent office first didn’t always maintain a tight rein of control over their inventions. This is emphasized best in a reoccurring appearance by Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi (played with brilliant comic effect by Jeff Solomon) who is repeatedly denied a patent for his invention of the Radio – a field of research and development also pioneered by Tesla. It is implied that Marconi and Tesla remained lifelong adversaries.
The onstage action, which takes place in a static three-part interior set, is occasionally augmented by the incorporation of black and white film clips, starring the play’s actors, which provide a newsreel-like back-story or help to advance the story line in a way that dialogue will not suffice. Such clips are used most effectively in a G-Rated – but nevertheless quite passionate – love scene between Tesla and his implied romantic interest, Katherine (Samantha Slater), that illustrates the bittersweet, largely unfulfilled state of their affair.
Other historical figures fleshing out this extremely fascinating and vibrant play include Tesla’s early employer, Thomas Edison (Tom Cappadona), financial tycoon JP Morgan (portrayed as being pretty much an ego-maniacal prick by Adam Pagdon) and actor Allessandro Colla in a dual role as George Westinghouse and Mark Twain. Colla’s over-the-top physical mannerisms employed in his portrayal of Westinghouse are a highlight among the performances of a universally outstanding cast.
Nicola Tesla died of heart failure in 1943 at the age of 86: penniless, in debt and alone in the hotel room in which he lived during the final days of his life. Was he ahead of his time? No doubt. Was he a mysterious genius? Most definitely.
Tesla is Showing at Theater 80, Located at 80 St Mark’s Place (East 8th Street between First and Second Avenues) in New York City through June 8th, 2013. Showtime is at 8:00 PM Daily with a 3:00 PM Matinee on Sundays. Phone 212-388-0388 or visit http://www.teslaoffbroadway.com for Tickets and Further Information.