Two Women

Editors' review

January 28, 2019

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In the intellectual and creative ferment of early 20th century Paris, Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, struggle through endless hours of physically dangerous work in order to master the secrets of radiation. Reaching a remarkable breakthrough, they share a Nobel Prize, the first ever granted to a woman. But the world isn’t fully ready to accept Marie’s incredible achievement. After Pierre’s death, a love affair with the brilliant, unhappily married physicist Paul Langevin rescues her from depression, but at the cost of a public scandal. It threatens to end Marie’s career just when she might be awarded an unprecedented second Nobel Prize.

Legendary 7-time Emmy Award-winning actor, screenwriter and bestselling author Alan Alda, in his first full-length stage drama, beautifully captures the emotional turmoil of a woman forced to choose between love and her life’s work.

An intriguing perspective on the life of one of science’s most significant minds The Stage

Following on from its world premiere in Los Angeles, RADIANCE: The Passion of Marie Curie is brought to the Tabard by veteran New York and London producer/director Mark Giesser, whose three previous Tabard productions received extensive critical acclaim.

NOV. 27, 2011

LOS ANGELES — Despite much learned talk about the game-changing scientific discoveries in radioactivity it portrays, “Radiance,” a new drama by Alan Alda at the Geffen Playhouse here, doesn’t emit much in the way of theatrical light.

Certainly Mr. Alda, the amiable actor and besotted science buff, does his studious best to illuminate the challenges that Marie Curie, gracefully portrayed by Anna Gunn, faced in pursuing a career in the sciences at a time when it was virtually unheard of for women to take prominent roles in academic or public life. But his dramatization of Curie’s personal and professional trials often feels like a talking diorama in a science museum, at least until it makes a sudden leap into juicy, gaslit melodrama in the second act.

Directed by the veteran Daniel Sullivan, “Radiance” takes up Curie’s story as she and her husband, Pierre, are together making startling discoveries in their makeshift laboratory near Paris. Having previously identified a new radioactive element, which they named polonium in honor of Marie’s Polish origins, they have stumbled upon a second, which they called radium. The challenge ahead is to isolate it, and Marie’s dedication to her profession is such that she is willing to endure “freezing eyelids and bleeding fingers,” not to mention much less time with her children, to achieve her goal.

It’s never easy to create popular entertainment from the painstaking drudgery and intellectual arcana of science and chemistry. Dialogue in which Pierre (John de Lancie) announces that “radium is all bound up with barium, and we have to separate it out with fractional crystallization” doesn’t really make audiences twitch in their seats with excitement.

Mr. Alda isn’t altogether adept in the necessary matter of exposition, either, leaving Ms. Gunn to deliver a stagy monologue describing Marie’s unhappy history as a governess back in Poland. Whenever Mr. Alda finds himself needing to provide context that he cannot weave into the episodic narrative itself, the characters also turn away from the Bunsen burners and formula-covered blackboards to reveal their thoughts directly to the audience.

To stoke the drama the congenial, intellectually stimulating marriage of Marie and Pierre is contrasted with the stifling home atmosphere of their scientific colleague Paul Langevin (Dan Donohue), who admits to worshipping Marie for her beautiful brain and precise mind. His passion is not lost on his pinched wife, Jeanne (Sarah Zimmerman), who grows more spiteful and suspicious, culminating in a dark threat of violence that ends the first act on a melodramatic note.

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Ms. Gunn, who appears in the cult cable television series “Breaking Bad,” gives a conscientious, committed performance in the play’s central role. She persuasively conveys Marie’s shock and humiliation at the news that the Nobel Prize committee has excluded her from the award given to her husband and others for discoveries in which she played a crucial part. (He objected and they relented, but Marie was not allowed publicly to receive the prize.)

And Ms. Gunn digs into the play’s meatier material — the sudden death of Pierre, and Marie’s subsequent, scandalous affair with Langevin — with a focused intensity that enlivens the play’s later scenes. Ms. Zimmerman and Mr. Donohue are also fine as the discontented couple whose relationship grows more antagonistic when Jeanne publicly exposes the affair, causing a public outburst of xenophobia tinged with anti-Semitism (despite Marie’s Catholic background).

All this history, and more, is dutifully forked over in digestible chunks in “Radiance,” but Mr. Alda lacks the imaginative vision to give it engrossing dramatic form. As it moves from episode to episode, the play reminded me of one of those old-school documentaries that featured stodgily dramatized scenes among the talking-head interviews with historians.

Mr. Alda’s idea to keep all the actors onstage throughout the play, seated quietly at the sides when they are not participating in the action, strikes me as a mistake too. Stiffly attentive in their chairs, trying to look properly interested in the proceedings, the actors only reinforce the impression that what we are witnessing is less a drama than an animated science seminar.

“ Juicy, gaslit melodrama… illuminates the challenges that Marie Curie faced in pursuing a career in the sciences at a time when it was virtually unheard of for women to take prominent roles in academic or public life.” – The New York Times

Theatre The Observer
Susannah Clapp
Sunday 15 February 2015 03.00 EST
Radiance review – Alan Alda’s drama about Marie Curie lacks chemistry
This account of the scientist’s romantic life fails to sparkle, despite Cathy Tyson’s expressive lead

A very small theatre can do something extraordinary. In the case of the enterprising Tabard, it is the showing of Cathy Tyson very close up. Every shadow under the eye, every flick of the eyelid is registered. When change sweeps across her it is as if the weather has changed, a veil lifted, a fog cleared. “Has she discovered a new element?” someone asks. The answer in Alan Alda’s play – yes, he of MASH – is no: it is love. The story of Radiance is that of a rather dull romance, conducted by Marie Curie after her husband’s death. Only startling if you think clever women aren’t sexy. Only surprising if you think the French are really cool about affairs; they hounded her. Only frightening because of her lover’s alarming moustache.

Alan Alda has written five feature films (including The Four Seasons and The Seduction of Joe Tynan), two best selling books, and 19 episodes of the highly acclaimed television series MASH, one of which was awarded an EMMY for writing. The final episode, which he co-wrote, was watched by over 100 million people the night it was broadcast. His stage play, Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie, premiered at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles and is published by Samuel French. As an actor, Mr. Alda has appeared in many feature films, including The Aviator, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. He has appreared often on the Broadway stage, where he received three Tony nominations. On television, where he played Hawkeye Pierce for eleven years on the series MASH, he won 6 EMMY awards and 33 nominations for writing, acting and directing. His long-time interest in science led to his interviewing hundreds of scientists around the world for eleven years on the award-winning PBS series Scientific American Frontiers. In 2010, he hosted the science series The Human Spark on PBS. On Broadway, he appeared as the physicist Richard Feynman in the play QED. In 2006, he was presented with the National Science Board’s Public Service Award for his efforts in helping to broaden the public’s understanding of science. He is a Visiting Professor at Stony Brook University’s Center for Communicating Science, which he helped found, and where he helps develop innovative programs that enable scientists to communicate more effectively with the public.


This turned out very well, a wonderful example of how talented people in New York push back against obstacles to bring art into glorious flower, and meaningful art at that.

Alan Alda has done a science play which surely has broader appeal than anything done to date, because he has recognized that the story of Madame Curie has huge resonance in more than one aspect of modern life – not only the continuing surge in scientific progress an discovery, but also the still handicapped empowerment of women, and the eternal human struggle between love and family life and the demands and triumphs of important work, a struggle which handicaps all of us if we aim at great accomplishment in any sphere, but especially in intellectual work.

In all these ways the story of Curie is not only relevant but inspiring, not least because it is a saga of overcoming cultural resistance and prejudice against women taking on one of the greatest challenges of the outside world and beating men at what they consider their own game of scientific discovery worthy of a Nobel – two Nobels in Curie’s case, which is still a record.

That, and defeating the kind of social repression of women that had most of them suffering the torments of the damned when they were discovered in adultery or pregnant outside marriage. Curie’s affair with her friend and colleague nearly lost her the second Nobel prize she won for her work, so busy were the supposedly bedroom-wise French in condemning her adulterous affair, though it was after her own husband died, and with the husband of a jealous wife in a relationship that was already emotionally broken.

The story is so appealing to the pen of any playwright that it is something of a mystery why Alan Alda is apparently the first to see its golden literary nature. There have after all been quite a few biographies of Curie, and at least one film made by the British. But the recent success of one or two plays concerned with science and even mathematical discovery have shown the way with a fair success in attracting audiences.

This juicy drama incorporates all the emotion of the social and sexual politics which swirled around this Polish-born heroine, however, whose very presence in Paris reflected her determination to leave behind the provincial disrespect of women in her native city.

There is so much lively conflict of ideas and personalities in this script that not surprisingly it easily surmounted the handicap of its excessively modest stage, which was hardly more than a large room in a tenement brownstone on 47th Street just off Ninth Avenue, which is busy with traffic on weekends in its numerous restaurants with tables or open walls onto the street.

On the Saturday night we attended about sixty chairs were filled around a patch of floor on the second level of the house at the back, and actors were only a few feet from those of us in the first of three rows. Moreover, it was a hot night and as the lively stage manager explained to us the air conditioning could be switched on only after the heating was inactive or somesuch, so fans of any kind were essential throughout.

But the sound system worked and the hand of the director was deft in arranging the actors on stage so that the limitations of scale vanished, and the unfolding of the tale was as effective as it might be on any larger platform, which it might well deserve.

If anything the vocalization was a bit more strenuous than needed in the beginning we thought but as the play moved along all settled into their roles until by the second half with no diminution in drama all were present as the figures from the past reliving again on stage the events of another time as if it was today.

Some may object that the process of discovery was oversimplified, perhaps childishly so, by Alda’s script, which essentially just either breathlessly anticipated the triumph of proving out her theory that high levels of radioactivity in radium or polonium would result from a suggested process or celebrated the success with hugs and cries of joy. One gathered that Marie had been inspired by watching the slag being separated from the molten metal in some factory, and asked that it be dumped in the back garden without warning husband Pierre of just how many truckloads would be involved.

But no matter – the details of science are hardly the topic for any playwright anyway. What grips our attention is the fact that all her work was initially credited to her husband by the Nobel Committee, and she had to push him to insist that she be included in the award – and even then she was not allowed on stage to share in the limelight of the acceptance. How hard did her husband fight for her? Alda does not make this clear, since he moves from one episode to the next very rapidly.

He does make clear however that her husband’s tragic death in the street so after was due to the poisonous radioactvity of the radium and later polonium they worked with. His legs were just too weakened to jump out of the way of a heavy horsedrawn cart whose back wheels ran over him after the horses knocked him down.

The affair she eventually is blessed with to comfort her after Pierre’s death provides the cliffhanger of the second part of the play, since it brings down on her the wrath of the mob and demands from the Nobel Committee that she deny it publicly before they can hand her her unprecedented second prize.

There is enough here to support a TV drama of several segments, and we understand that there is a movie currently in the works. One thing is certain: this production deserves a much longer run than a weekend on a bigger stage in New York, and no doubt will get it.