'Louis Slotin Sonata' Has Its 19th Nuclear Breakdown

There were 100 directions playwright Paul Mullin and director Eberhard Koehler could have taken with Mullin's play Louis Slotin Sonata. Fortunately, for those who enjoy ample doses of organized chaos in their theater, they took every one of them.

A dude in a gorilla suit quoting Eugene O'Neill and Robert Frost bookends the play. There's a song-and-dance number about the Angel of Death, Josef Mengele, celebrating the bombing of Nagasaki. There's a brief foray into history's first example of Jewish haggling: Abraham's pleading with Yahweh over Sodom and Gomorrah. A shadow puppet of J. Robert Oppenheimer buggers Albert Einstein. There are at least four enactments of the plot's central thrust: the true story of a scientist working on the Manhattan Project who, through bad luck or sheer arrogance, poisons himself and dies of radiation sickness.

And, somehow, through all the diversions and theatrical spectacle—presented in masterful fashion from director Koehler and a battalion of California Repertory Co. technicians—a very real heart beats.

Based on the 1946 death of Louis Slotin, a footnote in the development of America's nuclear arsenal, Louis Slotin Sonata is a sobering tale about mortality and one man's quest for redemption, as well as a cautionary exploration of the implications of scientific experimentation. Originally presented in 1999 by the exemplary Los Angeles-based Circle X Theatre Co., which won a slew of awards for that inaugural production, the events take on added resonance 12 years later, in light of March's meltdown of three Japanese nuclear reactors in the wake of a 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami. That makes the play's central question, addressed in a myriad of fashions, just as applicable today as it was in 1946: In unlocking the secrets of the atom, has humanity consigned itself to annihilation?

We begin on the afternoon of Tuesday, May 21, 1946, in a Los Alamos, New Mexico, nuclear laboratory. Chief bomb-builder Slotin (a riveting, multifaceted Josh Nathan) is proudly displaying “Rufus,” the nickname given to a plutonium bomb core, to some colleagues. He's working on a “crit test,” designed to prove the core has the exact amount of critical mass to sustain a nuclear explosion. But performing the test is risky, even for someone such as Slotin, who had achieved it numerous times. The smallest slip in “tickling the dragon's tail” could result in radiation spewing from the core.

And that's just what happens. Slotin's hand slips from the flathead screwdriver he's using, resulting in a chain reaction. He hurls the shell to the floor, but not before deadly neutrons vomit from its interior; his body absorbs most of the radiation, and he knows instantly he has only a few days to live.

Mullin, a Seattle-based playwright of no small repute (check out paulmullin.org for more 411), could have chosen to craft a linear account of Slotin's inexorable physical and mental decline, with plenty of soul-searching, self-flagellation and moral wrestling. Instead, he borrows from the vocabulary of a musical sonata, continually re-enacting the botched test, using everything from heightened melodrama to masked actors to address the issue of whether Slotin was a hero for saving his colleagues from radiation (the official story the military brass wants to put out there), or a reckless daredevil who, in showing off, fucked himself as badly as one person can fuck himself.

The play spins into multiple tangents, duplicating the radiation melting down Slotin's decaying mind. And while some of the tangents seem superfluous (two weeks later, I'm still trying to figure out the Mengele song-and-dance number), the frenzied theatricality of the piece is mostly just astonishing. Much of the credit goes to Koehler's inspired direction, but the play's true strength resides in Mullin's evocative, imaginative words. He supplies hearty doses of scientific jargon in a keenly accessible way, juxtaposing weighty concepts such as gamma rays, quantum mechanics and thermodynamics with the achingly human tale of a man forced to deal with the awful realization that a simple blunder has made him his own executioner.

This is definitely experimental-what-the-fuck-is-going-on theater, and occasionally, the production seems a bit too enamored of itself, bordering on pretension. But Mullin and Koehler yank the reins when necessary and provide ample doses of humor and poignancy, often in the same moment. An exceptional supporting cast is called upon to do everything from mimicking the choreography of protons and electrons in an atom to the aforementioned vaudeville-ish number, enthusiastically embracing all of it.

Sifting through the freewheeling tale for a central message may defeat the purpose of such a sweeping, jaw-dropping exercise in unrestrained theatricality. But if there is one, it's embodied in an Einstein quote dropped several times into the play: “God does not play dice.” In the case of Slotin and his Los Alamos colleagues, the die they chose to roll—creating weapons that could eradicate humanity from the face of the planet—possessed odds impossible to calculate. The house won for the Manhattan Project boys; for the rest of us, the frightening reality in this play is that the final chapter of whether we'll beat those odds has yet to be written.


This review appeared in print as “19th Nuclear Breakdown: Bizarre and all over the place, Louis Slotin Sonata at Cal Rep is still a (atom) smash.”

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