Chelsea Players present 'Einstein and the Polar Bear'

Andrew Kirby, as famous author Bill Allenson, leads the Chelsea Players' spring production of
Andrew Kirby, as famous author Bill Allenson, leads the Chelsea Players' spring production of "Einstein and the Polar Bear" during a rehearsal at the United Congregational Church in Norwich. Performances will be April 21, 23, 28 and 29 at the church. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

In the early 1980s, the married duo of Ken and Linda Lamothe — longtime theater fans who live in Norwich — took fairly regular trips to the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford to watch staged readings at the National Playwrights Conference.

A couple of pieces made a particular impression on Ken.

One was August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

“That was pretty cool. We were sitting there, and four rows in front of us was August Wilson. Little did we know he was going to become one of the most prominent playwrights of the 20th century,” he says.

The other play that really affected Lamothe was Tom Griffin’s “Einstein and the Polar Bear.”

He recalls watching it and thinking, “My God, this is astounding.”

At the time, Lamothe was theater advisor at Norwich Free Academy, where he taught math, and he thought he wanted to stage “Einstein” someday.

It took more than three decades before he did, but, starting this weekend, Chelsea Players — the 34-year-old Norwich-based theater group of which Lamothe is a founding member — will present “Einstein and the Polar Bear” at the United Congregational Church in Norwich.

Lamothe will direct the work.

Of course, the question is: what took so long?

Well, Chelsea Players actually did do a reading of “Einstein and the Polar Bear” at one meeting about 15 years ago, and everyone was enthusiastic about it. But Andy Kirby, who was the group’s president then, “couldn’t pull the trigger” on it, Lamothe says.

“He was afraid that he could not cast the male lead. He knew he could cast the female lead, because he was married to the person (wife Amy Kirby) who would be really good for the female lead. But he was right — the two lead parts in this are really challenging because both parts are very funny, very, very serious, sad, angry — there’s a whole range of emotions, sometimes within a space of five minutes,” Lamothe says.

Now, years later, Lamothe says, “Well, I’ve cast the male lead: Andy.”

Yes, Andy Kirby will be playing the central role in “Einstein,” and Amy Kirby will be the main female character. “They are very, very challenging roles, but let’s just say we’ve got it in the bag with those two,” Lamothe says.

The role that Andy Kirby will play is loosely based on reclusive author J.D. Salinger. The character of Bill Allenson is a writer who becomes revered after penning two books and who moves to New Hampshire in an effort to retreat from the spotlight. He lives with his father, who has suffered a stroke. The father often recounts the time he met Einstein in Watch Hill, Rhode Island. (Einstein did, in fact, spend time in Watch Hill in the 1930s, where people saw him smoking his pipe and playing his violin, Lamothe notes.)

The storyline begins to spin when, on a snowy night, a female driver stops at Allenson’s house with a tale of her car breaking down during the storm.

“Einstein and the Polar Bear” is written by Tom Griffin, whose best-known work is “The Boys Next Door.”

Griffin was an actor with Trinity Repertory Company in Providence and taught playwriting at the University of Rhode Island, Lamothe says, and knows Watch Hill.

Not only does Allenson’s father mention Watch Hill in the play, but he also describes the restaurant where he saw Einstein. Although the venue isn’t named, Lamothe says it’s pretty clear it’s the Olympia Tea Room, considering the description of green awnings and newspapers on the counter.

While Griffin’s “The Boys Next Door” is often performed in community theater, “Einstein and the Polar Bear” isn’t.

“It’s interesting — I’ve been reading (‘Einstein and the Polar Bear’) reviews,” Lamothe says of the show’s 1981 Broadway run. “It flopped terribly in New York. It lasted, like, a week. You read the reviews, and some of the comments are that the dialogue is just too clever. Well, I don’t think it’s too clever. I just think it’s really, really well-written.”

Lamothe loves the play and says he’s been calling “Einstein and the Polar Bear” an eccentric romantic comedy, but it’s also a serious drama that touches on issues including celebrity and loneliness.

“I think it’s really unusual that you see any art form, whether it’s a TV show or whether it’s a movie or whether it’s a play, that handles drama and comedy equally well, and this play does both,” Lamothe says.

He says that he’s heard some of the lines in rehearsal 20 to 25 times, and he still laughs at them.

Playing a mailman — one of the locals who is very protective of Allenson’s privacy — is the Rev. George Blair, who became the pastor of United Congregational Church about a year ago. That church is where Chelsea Players usually perform. Blair had done community theater before, and he attended a couple of Chelsea Players productions, a series of women’s monologues and “Outgoing Tide.”

“He said to me, ‘Wow, you guys don’t do conventional stuff, do you?” Lamothe says. “I said, ‘Nah, we’re kind of proud of that fact.”

Indeed, Chelsea Players and Lamothe like to do challenging plays.

“I want a play that’s got some meat on its bones. Chelsea Players is fortunate enough that we have among our hardcore actors some very, very intelligent people — intelligent onstage and intelligent offstage,” Lamothe says.

He adds, “Lefty Gomez was a pitcher for the New York Yankees in the 1940s and was successful. A reporter asked him once, ‘What is the key to your success?’ He said, ‘Clean living and a fast outfield.’”

He laughs.

“If you get a smart cast, you’re a really good director,” he says.

"Einstein and the Polar Bear," United Congregational Church Hall, 87 Broadway, Norwich; 8 p.m. April 21, 28 and 29, 3 p.m. April 23; $10 in advance, $12 at the door, $10 for seniors at all times; (860) 887-7289, klamothe37@gmail.com, Chelseaplayers.org.

Andrew Kirby as Bill Allenson works through a scene with Amy Kirby as Diane Ashe during rehearsal for the Chelsea Players'
Andrew Kirby as Bill Allenson works through a scene with Amy Kirby as Diane Ashe during rehearsal for the Chelsea Players' "Einstein and the Polar Bear." (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

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