Theater review by Raven Snook
A frisky, feminist crowd-pleaser, The Half-Life of Marie Curie radiates empowerment—which is fitting, since it centers on the woman who coined the term radioactivity. In 1912, after an affair with her late husband’s protégé threatens to derail her life and career, two-time Nobel Prize winner Curie (Francesca Faridany) accepts an invitation from fellow female physicist Hertha Ayrton (Kate Mulgrew, a force of nature) to spend the summer at her English seaside home. There they bond and bicker, touching on a wide range of topics, including suffrage, motherhood, grief, carnal joy, and the damaging effects of sexism in science and society.
Lauren Gunderson is America’s most frequently produced living playwright, though her work is rarely mounted in New York. Her well-researched one-act has a slightly didactic quality—especially in the coda, when the women talk directly to the audience about their lives after 1912, including how their inventions saved soldiers in World War I. But while The Half-Life of Marie Curie may not be as inventive as the women it celebrates, it’s enlightening and entertaining. Under Gaye Taylor Upchurch’s unfussy direction, Faridany fleshes out the passive-depressive Curie with revealing flashes of intense passion for science and sex. Impressively, she holds her own opposite supernova Mulgrew, who is playing the lesser-known figure but has all the best lines. (Mulgrew’s expressive voice will certainly be a highlight of the recording of the play that Audible plans to release.) Their performances do a lot to bring Gunderson’s history lesson to life. These two women have chemistry.
Minetta Lane Theatre (Off Broadway). By Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch. With Kate Mulgrew, Francesca Faridany. Running time: 1hr 25mins. No intermission.