Leo Szilard's world is dominated by a long table. At one end is his home, and at the other is a bar. In between these two poles, Szilard races — reluctantly and with mounting regrets — to create the bomb that could destroy the world. It's a tough way to make a living. Success requires that he risk losing his beloved Trude, but failure means the Nazis could win.
Szilard is one of the lesser-known atomic physicists who birthed America's nuclear weapons program during World War II. Danny Ginges and Philip Foxman's musical drama Atomic is a fictionalized version of his life. It is a complex story that presents multiple viewpoints on the purpose of applied science, the ethics of war, the depths of the human conscience and the dangers of bureaucracy. That's a heavy load for a musical to carry, but New Line Theatre's current production of the show makes it look effortless. Directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy use the character of Szilard as a lens for the audience to examine all of these issues, and also as a mirror to reflect the human beings caught up in forces beyond their control. What could be a play bogged down in conceptual arguments is instead a very human story about our best and worst tendencies as a species. Ambition, curiosity and altruism jostle with overweening pride, blind obedience and vengeance.
Zachary Allen Farmer is Szilard, a Hungarian Jew chased out of Europe by the rise of Hitler. Farmer speaks with a quiet certainty that reinforces Szilard's reputation of "always being right," as his girlfriend Trude (Ann Hier) chides him. Together the two make their way in America, she as a doctor and he as an unemployed physicist living on his patent money. A chance encounter with recent Nobel Prize-winner Enrico Fermi (the excellent Reynaldo Arceno) leads to the duo working together to split the atom in 1939 with Edward Teller (Sean Michael, very good in an unlikable role). Their friends in the European scientific community drop hints that the Nazis are pursuing a similar path, so the group decides to approach the U.S. government for funding. Eventually they get their wish. Under the auspices of the U.S. Army, the Manhattan Project becomes a well-funded wing of the military industrial complex, much to Szilard's chagrin.
The scientists may be unified in theory, but in practice they're in non-stop argument. Fermi is a passionate advocate for openness in all scientific inquiries, believing that data should be shared freely. Teller is a hard-eyed realist who believes if you're gonna make something, you have to use it regardless of consequences. Szilard is a humanist who views science only as a means for improving the world. His closest ally is Leona Woods (Larissa White), a physicist driven by fear for her brothers' lives in the European war zone; that fear spurs her to swallow her own misgivings about what they're pursuing. Their project leader, Arthur Compton (Ryan Foizey), is a devout Catholic who tamps down his own doubts to better ramrod them all to success.
Farmer has a famously large singing voice, and he uses it well throughout. He and Hier power their way through "Where is Home," an aching lament for their friends and family destroyed in the Holocaust. That sense of loss fuels Leo's growing determination not to let America use the bomb for fear of triggering a nuclear arms race (prescient guy, no?).
In any other show Farmer's performance of "One Day" would be the highlight. It's a perfectly balanced scene, Farmer facing off against his comrades as they gather to watch the first detonation, with the audience a silent witness on either side of the room. Farmer stands alone, warning his fellow scientists that there will be a price to pay for what they've done, unwilling to be silenced even by the blast that he's helped engineer.
And yet as good as it is, it's bested by "What I Tell Myself." Nine years after the war the group reunites at a wedding, and one by one they share the horror and revulsion they feel toward their great achievement, and worse, toward themselves.
"We saved a million lives, so why can't I sleep at night?" they ask each other. They're all brilliant people, but not one of them has an answer.