When Marilyn Monroe meets Albert Einstein in Insignificance, she's wearing dark sunglasses and the white dress from The Seven Year Itch. Lazy thinking may suggest that she's the beauty and he's the brains, but Defunkt Theatre's production convinces you that they're each a little bit of both. Not long into their conversation, she explains the theory of relativity to him.
To be clear, the play's protagonists are Einstein and Monroe in all but name. In 1953, in a hotel room that overlooks the Chrysler Building—thanks to a beautiful backdrop courtesy of Lara A. Klingman's set design—we meet the Professor (Gary Powell), whose cloud of wild hair betrays his identity in the first scene. He receives an unwelcome visit from a McCarthy-like senator (Nathan Dunkin), who has ordered him to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee the next day. The senator quickly departs, but his visit casts a pall over what seems to be an otherwise quiet evening.
Then the Actress (Tabitha Trosen) shows up. Eager to meet the professor whom she idolizes, she barges in and demonstrates the theory of relativity using flashlights and toy trains. The Professor seems delighted by his star-struck visitor, even when their solitude is disrupted by her instantly recognizable husband, "the Ballplayer" (Morgan Lee), whose jealousy turns the play into a pressure-cooker narrative of disparate celebrities vying for dominance in a single room.
Terry Johnson's play premiered in 1982 England, and was adapted into a movie just three years later. But it wasn't until last year that Insignificance made its New York premiere. Now, Defunkt is parking in its resurgence. The shenanigans are a perfect fit for Defunkt's intimate stage. You feel physically close not only to the play's larger-than-life characters, but to the production's astounding aural and visual details, from the sounds of traffic that waft up to the hotel room to the pulsating light that illuminates the Actress' sorrowful face.
Thanks to a dextrous cast and the lush imagination of director Andrew Klaus-Vineyard, Insignificance portrays Monroe and Einstein as charming caricatures—she baby talks and his mustache is atom bomb-sized—without letting either of them become one dimensional.
Insignificance's dark comedic twists and turns culminate in a brutal act of violence meant to lend gravitas to the proceedings. This attempt to deepen the material is a mistake—the play is at its best during its goofiest moments.
Yet the story's weak points are ultimately redeemed by the actors, especially Trosen. Her portrayal of the Actress' persona is a masterful Marilyn impersonation.
Instead of attempting to imagine the Monroe of real life, we feel as if Trosen is portraying Monroe's myth. In doing so, she shows us the precarious power of being coveted by bullies like her husband and scheming predators like the Senator.
SEE IT: Insignificance is at Defunkt Theatre, 4319 SE Hawthorne Blvd., defunktheatre.com. 7:30 pm Thursday-Sunday, through Nov. 18. Pay what you will, $20 suggested.