A rainy evening in the East Village welcomed the opening night of the new off-Broadway play, TESLA. All that was missing were bolts of lightning, which would have been appropriate given that Nikola Tesla was born at midnight during a thunder storm. Inside the theater the electricity was as vibrant as the topic of the show. Not a seat was to be found in the packed theater – not even standing room was left available. They were not to be disappointed.
For much of the play there are actually two Nikola Teslas onstage. Jack Dimich plays the older Tesla living out the end of his life in the Hotel New Yorker, ruminating over his inability to offer a particle beam to stop Hitler’s assaults on Yugoslavia. As Tesla chats with bellhop Luka (played by Luka Mijatovic), whom he has enlisted to feed his pigeons, he is joined by his younger self, who relives the glory days of invention. Young Tesla, played enthusiastically by James Lee Taylor, stars throughout as he meets his idol (and then rival) Thomas Edison, cavorts with Mark Twain, sees his dreams come true with the backing of George Westinghouse, and then sees those dreams dashed by J.P. Morgan.
Alessandro Colla gives spirited performances both as Westinghouse and Twain. Adam Pagdon brings to life J.P. Morgan in a way that makes you both respect and despise the man who financed, then rejected, Tesla’s Wardenclyffe plans. Tom Cappadona is simply stellar as Thomas Edison, the self-made businessman whose investment in direct current leads him to encourage the electrocution of puppies and people to show the dangers of Tesla’s alternating current. Samantha Slater does double duty playing Katherine Johnson, the wife of Tesla’s friend and supporter Robert Underwood Johnson, as well as Mary, Edison’s enthusiastically social-climbing wife.
Despite the seriousness of the storyline, writer Sheri Graubert has expertly woven comic relief into the play. The most appreciated example is the recurring interludes by Guglielmo Marconi, “inventor of the raaadio.” Played magnificently by Jeff Solomon, you could hear the sound of the audience rising to a smile each time Marconi struts onto the stage. His performance was truly a gem. With her ability to switch back and forth between levity and gravity, Graubert has written an excellent play, well played.
Any review of TESLA would be remiss without acknowledging the superb direction of Sanja Bestic. Balancing two Teslas and host of other actors onstage, along with periodic video shots to set up and emphasize key characters and concepts, could not have been an easy task. Yet Bestic deftly turns the world of the enigmatic inventor into something we can all understand and appreciate.
Overall I was tremendously impressed with the quality of the acting, writing, and direction. The sold out opening night, including the pack of press passes sitting directly in front of me, rose organically and enthusiastically to give the bowing cast a standing ovation. It was well deserved.
TESLA continues through June 8th at Theatre 80, St. Mark’s Place, New York. The run is sold out but call the theater anyway as they may be able to squeeze in a few more. It’s worth it.
David J. Kent is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate. His next book, Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, is scheduled for release in summer 2017.