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'The Physicist' a madcap tale of insanity, physics

A posh mental institution is the setting for Prospect Theater's production of Friedrich Dürrenmatt's "The Physicists."

The Swiss playwright's masterpiece on nuclear proliferation, espionage, love and murder is a darkly comic tale of insanity and physics.

"The play combines ethical debate about the responsibility of scientists, the clever twists of a psychological thriller, and the farce of a world gone mad," said artistic director Heike Hambley of Merced.

"It's difficult to categorize," 72-year-old actor David Keymer said.

"It is a conglomeration of conflicting theater genres -- mystery, melodrama, farce, morality play. The funny parts are very funny, the dark parts will make the theatergoer think. It's very cleverly constructed, with many, many surprises and twists and turns of plot in it."

Keymer plays a mad-man who claims to be the great English physicist, Sir Isaac Newton.

"In a conversation with a police inspector (who is investigating the murder of a nurse by a madman who thinks he's Einstein), I claim really to be Albert Einstein," Keymer said. "But in fact, I'm really another scientist, who has been pressed into service by his intelligence service to spy on a third madman, Mobius."

Noelle Chandler, 25-year-old actress, plays Frau Rose, ex-wife of said madman Mobius.

"An English translation of any playwright is always a unique experience, but Durrenmatt's sense of humor is just remarkable," she said. "For the first several weeks, I could not possibly believe that I would ever see this play as funny. Now it's a laugh-out-loud riot.

The actors do a great job pulling out both the comic and tragic aspects and they highlight each other nicely."

Keymer finds that a common vein runs through Durrenmatt's work.

"He wants to expose hypocrisy, the twistings and turnings that otherwise respectable people go through to justify their self-interest in supposedly 'moral' terms," he said.

In "The Physicists," Durrenmatt centers his story on three madmen who believe themselves to be none other than Sir Isaac Newton, Alfred Einstein and a nonentity named Mobius, living out their years in a Swiss mental institution.

Add one murder, a little matrimonial discord and a hearty dose of madness, and it's not long before comic mayhem ensues.

"There are many comic moments in the play but at heart The Physicists is a serious play about a very serious topic: mutually assured destruction (MAD), and the role scientists played in making MAD possible in the 1950s and early 1960s," Keymer said. "Nuclear proliferation was a major issue then. It was, after all, the era of the Cuban missile crisis and the Iron Curtain. But has the urgency of this issue faded with the decades? A quick look at today's world -- Iran, North Korea, Pakistan -- suggests not."

The serious subject matter is lightened by the delightfully madcap characters.

"Frau Rose is fun to play for the reason every comic character is fun to play: it's satisfying to get laughs," Chandler said. "(Her) nervous tension at bringing her new husband to meet her old husband manifests in a shrill false giggle that is both annoying and very fun to do.

"It's only one scene, but I love doing it."

Keymer thinks the mix of serious and hilarious is the core of the production's success.

"Strengths of the play are its idiosyncratic characters, the plentiful twists and turns of its plot, and hidden puns sprinkled throughout the play," he said. " 'The Physicists' will make you think but it will also make you laugh. Not a bad combination for a night out at the theater."