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Fire Water 

A cold-fusion scam fries its scientists in Restoring the Sun.

Scientist Otto Boltzmann (Geddeth Smith) is fixed on - his dream of cold fusion.
  • Scientist Otto Boltzmann (Geddeth Smith) is fixed on his dream of cold fusion.
For those of us who sweated enormous damp circles under our pits before chemistry tests in high school, our day has finally come: Science is on the run! The evidence is everywhere, from schools refusing to teach evolution to Fox News interviewing psychic John Edward regarding the mental state of brain-damaged Terri Schiavo. (Edward's self-assured response, based on staring at the inside of his eyelids: "She definitely knows what's going on.") At this rate, 12th-grade physics teachers will soon be wearing pointy hats emblazoned with stars and moons, and swinging cats by their tails to determine the effects of centrifugal force. Now, there's a class we could have passed.

Regrettably, the joy of seeing arrogant scientists yanked around by their scrawny necks will be short-lived once our machines stop working and our doctors revert to the application of oozing cow bladders as a primary treatment protocol. We've come to depend on science -- and on the scrupulous scientific method, in particular -- employing it to achieve our modern lifestyle. But there are always those who seek to shortcut that process. In 1989, two University of Utah-funded chemists, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, claimed to have achieved cold fusion, which in effect would have cheaply and cleanly solved the world's energy needs into infinity. Trouble was, they cooked their experiment's findings and were scorned as charlatans.

This fascinating topical issue is the subject of the Play House's world premiere of Restoring the Sun, by Joe Sutton. In this telling, elderly Otto Boltzmann and youngish spitfire Parker Stevens are the white coats who boast that they've created nuclear fusion in water at room temperature (it usually requires temperatures into the millions of degrees). The story picks up as this duo -- accompanied by the faintly dunderheaded university president, Arthur Dewindt, and an aggressive PR flack, Len Spitzer -- visit Congress seeking megadollars to fund their research.

Everyone appears to be dazzled by this cold-fusion tap dance, but it soon becomes apparent that the wrench in the works is the media, represented by Laura Scott, a Washington Post reporter and Len's squeeze. Brought in by Len as a sympathetic chronicler, she asks uncomfortable questions about the rigor of the experiments and is surprised to learn that there were no controls. As she points out, if natives pound on tom-toms after every solar eclipse and the sun returns, they might think it was the drumming that did the trick, unless other activities were also attempted as control factors. Thus, we have the genesis of the play's title and the crux of Sutton's exploration of belief vs. scientific inquiry (as Parker helpfully notes, "We can think about the discrepancies in the data, or focus on the miracle").

Even though the script is dense with electrochemical lingo, the playwright manages to keep the focus clear and compelling, up to a point. But ironically, playwright Sutton does exactly what he accuses the scientists of doing by showing only the evidence that supports his premise. The person driving this cold-fusion road show is Parker (played with intensity by Joseph Adams), but he strikes such an unbelievable one-note -- bullying everyone in sight in exactly the same way -- that he quickly becomes a cipher dramatically. Sutton develops the character of Otto more fully, showing his conflicted nature and implying that the much-lauded academic was lured into this scheme by the chance to be considered brilliant once more. That's a barely credible explanation (slow self-delusion seems more likely than immediate self-aggrandizement), and it feels too pat, since it's revealed under Laura's softball interrogation.

Ultimately, the play begins to cannibalize its own arguments, and the script whirls through various iterations of the same faith-or-fact trope. Peripheral topics are touched on, with President Dewindt (played with administrative obtuseness by Stephen Bradbury) obviously swept away by the fame and riches that seem headed for his university, while sleazy Spitzer hangs onto his budding stars until it's obvious that their house of cards is tumbling. As happened with the real twosome, Otto and Parker wind up in France, where they continue their research.

Under the lean and elegant direction of Connie Grappa, the cast handles the material with style. As Spitzer, Daniel Cantor is a convincing pusher and spinner, trying halfheartedly to woo Laura, although his true obsession is scoring media coverage. Keira Naughton gives the reluctant but dogged Laura a believable commitment to the truth. And though soft on his lines occasionally, Geddeth Smith creates a sympathetic and at times touching Otto.

For a play with such a timely theme, the resonance after the final curtain is fairly dim. By making this cold-fusion "hoax" so personal for Otto and so blatantly shallow for Parker, the script disregards larger analogies and ideas. And that's a shame, because the potential is here for some combustible discussion.

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