With a spirited performance in "QED," Alan Alda goes a long way toward dispelling the notion that nuclear physicists are four-eyed nerds who never leave home without their pocket protectors and slide rules. As Richard Feynman - the New York-born scientist who helped develop the atom bomb, investigated the 1986 Challenger disaster and won a Nobel prize for his work on the theory of quantum electrodynamics (QED) - an engaging Alda brings out the fun-loving man behind the brilliant mathematical mind. Far from being a stodgy academic in a chalk-stained lab coat, Feynman was a skilled African drummer, enjoyed playing bit roles in college musicals, loved traveling to exotic places and frequented topless bars in which he often sketched the dancers. Feynman, who died in 1988, was also a charismatic raconteur. "QED," by Peter Parnell, is essentially a one-man show, with Feynman mostly telling anecdotes about his colorful life. He's joined onstage by a bubbly blond coed (Kellie Overbey) late in the second act. The play is set in 1986 in Feynman's messy California Institute of Technology office, which is crammed with books, papers and personal items. The multitasking, slightly absent-minded professor is there to catch up on some work, write a speech, appear in a school production of "South Pacific" later that night - and decide whether to have extremely risky surgery for a recurrence of cancer. It's either that, or surrender to the fact that his days are numbered. Constantly interrupted by phone calls, a pesky female student and an offstage band of drunken Russian visitors, Feynman does find the time to regale the audience with stories that deftly blend humor with pathos. These include his mixed emotions on building the atom bomb, how the movement of a flying plate during a college food fight inspired his theory of QED (the way electromagnetic fields interact with electrons and positrons), the heartbreaking death of his first wife and his ongoing battle with cancer. The one false moment comes with the appearance of Miriam (Overbey), a flirty, tipsy student with an obvious crush on her professor. Overbey is fine in the role. But the scene - she and Feynman dance to his manic drumming with wild abandon - not only shatters the intimacy Alda has established with the audience, it's a heavy-handed way of reminding him that life is worth the fight.
Who knew quantum electrodynamics could be so much fun?
Those who loved "Copenhagen" - and even those who didn't - should rush to Lincoln Center to see Peter Parnell's new play, "QED," which opened last night.
Alan Alda plays Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, considered by many to be America's greatest physicist of the 20th century - and one of our great eccentrics.
It is June 1986, and Feynman is in his office at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He is dying of cancer. He is not going to die for another 19 months, but he doesn't know this and neither do we.
But he does manage to tell us almost everything else.
At present, apart from his teaching and research, he is considering more cancer surgery, a possibility he examines with scholarly detachment.
Meanwhile, his life continues - he's playing a drum in an amateur production of "South Pacific" and trying to arrange an expedition to the remote Soviet republic of Tuva. (He inspired his friend Ralph Leighton to write a book "Tuva or Bust!" that partly informs this play.)
He is also concerned with filing a significant report on the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger during lift-off.
So that is where Feynman is. But where are Parnell and his play? And where is the audience?
We are listening to Feynman, and Parnell has rightly gambled that that will be entertainment enough.
Feynman was a fabulous lecturer, and for most of the play lectures the audience as if we were his favorite students.
He is talking chiefly about quantum electrodynamics (that's the QED of the title) for which he won his Nobel. It's dazzling, and the show makes the basics crystal clear.
No, it's not all lecture. Parnell also manages to weave in Feynman's life - including his time at Los Alamos working on the atomic bomb and watching it explode, the death of his first wife and, of course, his cancer.
The monologue is interrupted by phone calls and the brief appearance of a nubile girl student, with whom Feynman charmingly flirts, and . . . well, I don't want to spoil the rest.
This fine production by Mark Taper has been unerringly staged by its artistic director, Gordon Davidson, and is faultlessly cast.
Kellie Overbey blends cuteness with vulnerability and sagacity as the tempting student, while, bearing the whole weight of the evening, Alan Alda's magisterial portrait of the genius physicist is so utterly convincing that you shiveringly feel that Feynman is there in front of you.
If Feynman in life was not the spitting image of Alan Alda, in presence, voice and gesture, he should have been.
One snag: For some obscure reason the play is only being performed on Sunday and Monday nights, the days when the musical "Contact" is disconnected. So better stampede for available tickets rather than merely rush. "QED" is worth such trouble.
The lecturer, as lecturers are wont to do, poses a rhetorical question. Is it possible, he asks, indicating himself, that ''this thing walking back and forth in front of you, talking to you,'' is in fact simply ''a great glob'' of atoms?
That is certainly one possibility, sir. But wouldn't it be equally accurate to say that this thing -- if one may so call the personable and popular actor Alan Alda -- is a great glob of other, more readily identifiable elements? In fact, can't this thing be broken down into the particles that traditionally make up evenings of theater in which well-known performers impersonate dead celebrities?
''QED,'' a new work by Peter Parnell in which Mr. Alda portrays the physicist Richard Feynman, is such a textbook example of biographical theater that it's hard to watch it without seeing the diagram beneath. Bring a checklist of the traits you associate with the genre, and you'll find them all accounted for even before intermission.
A sustained monologue inspired by professional problems that reveal a larger personal crisis? Check. Outlandish eccentricities, manifested in amusing use of unexpected props and/or costumes, as well as peppery anecdotes? Check and double check.
Careful dropping of names and/or awards to establish subject as person of consequence? Check. Scenes in which subject sinks into self-doubts followed by scenes that affirm joy of living? Check, check, check.
Yes, that seems to sum up the principal ingredients found in standards of the biographical play like ''Mark Twain Tonight!'' (with Hal Holbrook), ''Tru'' (Robert Morse as Truman Capote), ''Full Gallop'' (Mary Louise Wilson as Diana Vreeland) and ''Master Class'' (Zoe Caldwell as Maria Callas).
None of the above, however, wore their outlines as visibly as does ''QED,'' which officially opened last night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center and can be seen on Sundays and Mondays through Dec. 17. For a play about a man who said he wasn't frightened ''by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose,'' it remains disappointingly earthbound.
It's easy to understand why Feynman's life would have attracted Mr. Alda, who initiated the project with the show's director, Gordon Davidson, who is the artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum. Theoretical physicists and mathematicians have become hot properties in theater with the unlikely success of Michael Frayn's ''Copenhagen'' and David Auburn's ''Proof.''
And Feynman, who died in 1988 at 69, was more than just a physicist of indisputable brilliance and creativity who helped redefine his discipline. (Feynman's work on quantum electrodynamics, or QED, won him the Nobel Prize.)
He was also a flaming iconoclast whose hobbies included bongo playing, nude life drawing and amateur acting in musical comedies; a thrice-married, self-defined womanizer; a famously charismatic teacher and the co-author of the best seller ''Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman: Adventures of a Curious Character'' (1985).
In other words, if you want sexy science, Feynman would seem to be your man. What's more, the role of a maverick eccentric physicist would appear to be custom made for Mr. Alda, best known as the maverick eccentric surgeon in the television sitcom ''M*A*S*H.''
Yet most of ''QED'' feels firmly rooted at the lectern. You're always conscious of the effort and research behind the play, which Mr. Parnell revised repeatedly for Mr. Alda, and it never acquires the surprising spontaneity of Feynman's beloved quarks.
The setting is Feynman's office at the California Institute of Technology in 1986. (Ralph Funicello designed the photographically detailed set.) Feynman is thinking out loud -- which means talking to the audience in chummy professorial style -- about a speech he is supposed to deliver called ''What We Know.''
Yet more somber elements, linked by those literal segues that might as well begin with ''Speaking of . . . ,'' keep intruding. They include shadowy memories (of himself as a young scientist on the fabled Los Alamos team, of the illness and death of his much-loved first wife) as well as phone calls from his oncologist and surgeon, reporting on the progress of the cancer that would eventually kill him.
There are also the more immediate realities of Miriam Field (Kellie Overbey), the enthusiastic student who keeps showing up with questions, and Feynman's performance that very night in a production of ''South Pacific.'' This allows Mr. Alda to make the requisite wild and crazy entrance beating a large drum and singing ''There Is Nothing Like a Dame.''
In a high-pitched, ear-taxing New Yawk accent, which brings to mind Jean Stapleton as Edith Bunker, Mr. Alda's Feynman discourses breezily on photons, his childhood in Far Rockaway, the folklore of a land called Tannu Tuva (then part of the Soviet Union) and the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, to which Feynman famously applied his debunking intelligence as a member of the presidential investigating commission.
That's just the first act. In the second, which takes place after a drunken cast party, Feynman sobers up to dig into his inner self, becomes melancholy and defeatist and does a celebratory dance with that pesky student, which reminds him that life must go on.
The scope of these musings may reflect Feynman's mercurial interests and intelligence. But the play and Mr. Alda's performance groan with the strain of dutifully covering all bases, as if cramming for a course on ''Feynman: Man and Myth.'' In popularizing a popularizer ''QED'' somehow loses the original heat and intensity of its subject, leaving only bright chalky outlines of character.
Mr. Alda works hard at keeping things lively. But it's telling that his most affecting moments are silent, when the animation drains from his face as Feynman contemplates the cosmic hangover of nuclear experimentation or the imponderable fact of mortality. Only then do you feel that Feynman is truly following his own dictum: ''Remember that everything is interesting if you look deeply enough.''
The nutty professor -- not the Jerry Lewis kind but the type who wears goofy ties and cracks jokes during dense lectures -- is a character many find irresistible. One of the more famous of the species is being impersonated twice weekly onstage at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, where Alan Alda is starring as Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman in Peter Parnell's "QED," adapted from Feynman's writings and a book by Feynman's friend Ralph Leighton.
Ralph Funicello's quirkily cluttered set, all battered furniture and rumpled order, takes us inside Feynman's office at Cal Tech, where he taught physics for nearly four decades. The play is set toward the end of Feynman's life, and it is a skillfully constructed tour through his personal history and scientific philosophy. The audience is a sort of imaginary class being lectured to by Professor Feynman, whose direct address to us is interrupted occasionally by the visits of a young student (Kellie Overbey).
Feynman enters drumming: He's playing a bit part in a school production of "South Pacific," and takes his role every bit as seriously as he does his science. Endless curiosity is the hallmark of his character, and it extends to a fascination with the recurring cancer that's threatening his life. As he talks, Feynman trades phone calls with his oncologist and other doctors as he decides whether to undergo an experimental treatment.
Facing thoughts of mortality, Feynman is in a recollective mood, and as he vaguely attempts to prepare for an upcoming lecture under the grandiose title of "What We Know," he reminisces about a long life spent wrestling with the mysteries of Mother Nature. "All of science is about trying to describe nature," he says. "Nature is always out there, she's always doing what she does, and it's our job to try and trick her into revealing her secrets to us. It's a dance."
Alda is ideally cast as Feynman. He's thoroughly believable as a smart guy with a naughty streak (topless bars!), a gleefully mischievous smile ever at the ready. More importantly for what is essentially a solo show, audiences warm to him easily and feel good in his company. His Feynman is intelligent but not too bookish, sensitive but not too soft, funny but not abrasively so.
The details of Feynman's illustrious career are laid out with pretty subtle authorial sleight-of-hand. Advance knowledge of quantum electrodynamics is not required. Only occasionally do we hear the thud of lines beginning, "If the Russians knew that I, a theoretical physicist who had worked on the atomic bomb…"
Feynman was in fact the youngest group leader at Los Alamos, and his retrospectively ambivalent feelings about the purposes of the science he so happily conducted there are among the strongest moments in the show. There's a particular hush in the theater as Feynman recalls coming to Manhattan after working on the bomb and being unable to shake calculations of how much damage an atomic bomb would wreak on the city. "Don't they all realize everything's going to be destroyed very soon?," he recalls thinking as he observes everyday activity, while chilling echoes of current events seep into the audience's collective consciousness.
Feynman's learning also was brought to bear upon national history when he helped discover the cause of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. He's outraged by a plan to smooth over the report he's written about the cause of the tragedy, the disrespect for the basic science involved.
Gordon Davidson, a.d. of the Mark Taper Forum, where the play preemed, has directed with a canny awareness of how much talk about light particles can be delivered before it's time to break for the reading of a letter Feynman once wrote to his deceased first wife (the play's only descent into the sentimental) or a mad bongo romp for the professor and his comely young admirer (its only lapse into excessive cuteness).
"QED" is not particularly deep, and it certainly doesn't have the theatrical sophistication or emotional resonance of Michael Frayn's popular-science project, "Copenhagen," but it's a solid piece of info-theater, a neat little PBS documentary brought to life, with real actors and bongo drums.