Alternating Currents

I can think of no better justification for the cut-and-paste functions of the ordinary word processor than Aubrey Hampton's play The War of the Currents, currently showing at Gorilla Theater. This sprawling, overlong and ultimately confusing work is never less than eloquent; it needs re-conception, rearrangement and reduction far more than it needs rewriting. And the problem isn't in the acting (nine thespians in 26 parts) or directing (by Hampton) either. On both scores, the play is well served, particularly where its two leads — Michael George Owens as Thomas Edison and Steve Mountan as Nikola Tesla — are concerned. No, the problem with Currents is that it takes what could be a gripping story — the competition between Edison and Tesla for the electrification of nations — and turns it into a seemingly random, unfocused series of incidents, some pivotal, some trivial, some visually dazzling but of dubious dramatic importance, some just downright irrelevant.

Two seasons ago, Hampton's GBS and Company started strong and then fell apart in a disordered Act 2; this time the chaos sets in at about 15 minutes into the play, and seldom dissolves into clarity for the rest of the long (two-and-a-half hour) evening. So what was true in '99 is even more evident today: Hampton has real talent but needs a good editor.

Hampton's opening gambit is an excellent one: to show the conflict of Edison and Tesla as not only a scientific and economic one, but also as a clash of utterly different personalities. The actors make the two inventors powerfully distinct. Owens' Edison is a cantankerous, money-grubbing egotist whose arrogance both propels and impedes him. Mountan's Tesla is a neurotic mystic occasionally capable of humility, but whose best ideas aren't very far from his worst delusions. In the play's first few minutes, when Edison and Tesla speak directly to the audience, you can't help but sense just how juicy the conflict between these two might be.

But then the digressions begin, and most of the potential for real drama is lost. Yes, the adult Edison explains how he came to invent a viable light bulb; but then young Edison (the solid if uninspired Chris Necker) arrives, and in a much-too-lengthy scene, re-enacts the conversation he had with his father after burning down a barn. This confusing battle between essential material and stuff that's interesting but marginal continues all through the evening.

The war of Edison's DC and Tesla's AC currents is never on stage long before it's interrupted by irrelevancies: Edison's mother (the unconvincing Joanna Sycz) reading As You Like It to her son; wife Mary Edison (Sycz again) singing You're My Popsy Wopsy; Tesla remembering (at length) how his brother was killed by a horse, or doing a magic trick called The Floating Light Bulb. Add a contemporary videographer (Slake Counts) repeatedly being shooed away by Edison, various celebrities of the time (Scott Isert as Mark Twain is best) and a male and female narrator (Dan Khoury and D. Davis), who for some reason read to the audience from manuscripts, and the result is simply too scattered to hold an audience's attention.

Some of the special effects — especially with the fascinating Tesla coil — are memorable, and Lino Toyos' set, representing the Edison and Tesla labs, is nicely evocative. But playwriting is an art of careful selection; and fascinating gizmos or not, this play needs a clearly defined conflict of distinct significance, in close focus.

Without it, The War of the Currents simply lacks electricity.

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