You can only imagine how heavy the news of Fritz Haber’s death hit. It seems that now almost all my real friends are dead. One feels like one is made of stone and not a living creature…Haber was the most spirited, the most complex, most generous of all my friends. I did not see him often, but I always thought it a gift, when I could spend even an hour with him. Haber’s was the tragedy of the German Jew, the tragedy of unrequited love…
– Albert Einstein, in a letter to Fritz Haber’s family following Haber’s death. (From the preface to the text of "Einstein’s Gift.")
It is a wonder that two giants in the world of science, that theoretical physicist Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955) and practical chemist F. (Fritz) J. Haber (1868 – 1934) felt a kinship and maintained a friendship for 30 years. Aside from their mutual respect for each other’s accomplishments, they never agreed on anything philosophical, social, or political. Their curiously conflicted relationship between the years 1905 and 1934 was undoubtedly tested during World War I and later with the emergence to power of Hitler’s Nazi Party.
Einstein, a Jew, relinquished his German citizenship in 1933 and immigrated to America. Haber, a passionate nationalist, converted opportunistically to Christianity in 1905. In Germany, "conversion" was not uncommon among intellectuals, educators, artists, and scientists who sought favor, promotion, and approval.
Haber’s principal objective was to help humanity. He developed a method to extract nitrogen from the atmosphere to create fertilizer to feed the world. Yet he was ultimately deemed a war criminal for inventing the chlorine gas used by the German soldiers during World War I and the insecticide Zyklon B, used in the Nazi extermination camps. Despite Einstein’s inability to convince Haber that his mission was being compromised by his ambition and allegiance to Germany, Haber’s legacy is one that can be equated alongside the mass annihilation that arose from Einstein’s genius.
That each of these Nobel Prize winners, Einstein, a pacifist, and Haber, an activist, would find their scientific achievements used by their respective governments not for the betterment of humanity, but for destruction is a key, but not the only issue, in Canadian Vern Thiessen’s absorbing and illuminating play "Einstein’s Gift." In it, Haber (Aasif Mandvi) remains the key protagonist, and Einstein (Shawn Elliott), the narrator, occasional participant, and constant observer of the action. Framed by two large blackboards, John McDermott’s unit set, with the help of Elizabeth Gaines; and Jeremy Morris-Burke’s intricate lighting, indicate a laboratory and various other locations.
As seen through the sympathetic eyes of the more theoretical and imaginative Einstein, ("Imagination is more important than knowledge") Haber’s life is one of misguided loyalty to a country in which anti-Semitism had always been widespread and increasingly virulent ("to be a German is to have character"). The play chronicles Haber’s rise as one of Germany’s most esteemed and lauded scientists and his swift decline when his being a Jew overshadowed his service and his achievements.
Commendably coiffed and mustached a la Einstein, Elliot affects a winning and endearing posture, particularly in an old jacket that we can see does not wear out its welcome in 30 years. Elliott’s charm is evident but never effusive and it contrasts nicely and effectively with Mandvi’s more Teutonic, autocratic, and stiff-necked countenance as Haber. Haber’s most amusing affectation is having himself addressed by all his titles: "Herr Doctor, Director, Professor Haber." In their first meeting, Einstein breaks through Haber’s stiffness as they engage in a playful duel using blackboard pointers.
One of the many emotionally sparked aspects of the play concerns Haber’s first wife Clara Immerwahr (Melissa Friedman), a brilliant chemist in her own right and a perfectionist whom we are given to believe corrected and validated Haber’s often hastily and sloppily developed experiments. Friedman is splendid and also heartbreaking as Clara, whose dismay with her husband’s decision to use chlorine gas as a weapon of mass destruction prompts a desperate and tragic act.
Although Haber falls in love again with the sweet and demure Lotta (Sarah Winkler), a hat check girl and Jewess, his stubborn blind-sightedness remains steadfast even as the Nazis degrade, demote, and virtually disenfranchise him. James Wallert is fine as Otto Haber’s faithful long-time assistant, until he becomes a Nazi and is forced into betrayal.
Under Ron Russell’s imaginative (to side with Einstein) direction, the play’s scenes move briskly between Einstein and Haber’s testy meetings. This otherwise tense, well-crafted dramatic chronicle also offers humor and romance. At the
university, Clara has just finished her dissertation in Latin and is introduced to Haber on the dance floor: "The application of nitrogen gas, yes? Shall we dance?" Haber answers, "I must warn you, a man is either a good chemist or a good dancer. The same man cannot be both." To this Clara responds, "That may be true of men, Herr Professor, but women are trained to be good at everything. Shall we?"
A complex and conflicted man to the end, Haber is, as Clara succinctly puts it, "born a Jew, professionally a Christian, and German by character." The play is a compelling, if still curiously incomplete portrait of a man who Einstein called narrow-minded, arrogant, and infuriating, yet was at Haber’s side near the end of his life with a gift that brings his friend back full circle to his roots. It’s a little schmaltzy, but aptly affecting.
A coda takes place in 1939, as Einstein reads from a letter he has written to President Roosevelt: "Research suggests it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium. This phenomenon would also lead to the construction of extremely powerful bombs." It’s a chilling reminder how stealthily personal idealism can be usurped by political will.
"Einstein’s Gift," through November 6, Acorn Theater, 410 West 42nd Street. 212-279-4200 or Ticketcentral.com