Nikola Tesla was a phenomenon when you consider the arc of his life and his myriad inventions. However, for all of his incredible genius, he died penniless and alone in a New York hotel room. How did this happen to a man so knowledgeable and impassioned about electricity’s benefits for mankind? The insightful and revelatory investigation of Tesla’s journey is the subject of Tesla, a memory play about the great Serbian-American inventor to whom we owe so very much.
The playwright Sheri Graubert unravels the threads of Tesla’s life as the quintessential inventor through flashback. With novel facility, Graubert interchanges the action of the present with flashbacks, with Tesla as two characters: the young, hopeful impassioned genius, and the elder, wiser survivor who forces himself to confront the decisions that sent him into his impoverished state.The young Tesla is played aptly by James Lee Taylor, an English-born, New York-based actor and writer. Jack Dimich who has frequently appeared in Off Broadway productions and 34 feature film roles plays the older Tesla with excellence and specificity.
The initial time frame is WWII. The older Tesla befriends a bellhop (a Serbian countryman) and discusses his ongoing development of the particle beam which he hopes to use against Hitler to save his homeland. Interspersed between the trials of the present, when old Tesla discovers the gradual destruction of his country by Hitler, the war’s end, and Yugoslavia’s gradual takeover by Tito and the communists, Tesla reminisces about his adversaries, Thomas Edison (Tom Cappadona), Westinghouse (Alessandro Colla), Marconi (Jeff Solomon), and JP Morgan (Adam Pagdon), and about his beloved friend Mark Twain (Alessandro Colla).
A play within a play frames the action as old Tesla watches young Tesla’s mistaken choices and we see his reactions and regrets. Would he have done things differently if he suspected the wicked machinations of Edison thwarting his “alternating current” at every turn? Should he have rescinded the contract he signed with Westinghouse to give up his percentage of shares in the company after its manipulated stock price forced a company merger with GE? Should he have continued to fight the battle against Marconi’s theft of patents for the radio even after the suspicious fire destroyed everything he was working on, his plans, inventions, patents, everything? Regarding JP Morgan, shouldn’t he have sought other investors, not those so tied into Wall Street skullduggery and stock manipulations?
At each crossroad decision which unearths the cupidity, vaingloriousness and corruption of Tesla’s malevolent adversaries, we understand that hindsight is an exact science. If Tesla had known to suspect and confront their venal nature, he might have gotten expert legal advice and safeguarded his scientific exploits, anticipating the potential harm these adversaries were capable of. But we see it isn’t in him; he is too caught up in his scientific artistry. As with other artists preyed upon by locusts and canker worms feeding and destroying, Tesla’s substance may have been sucked dry, but his essence remains.
The play instructs us that you cannot regret the past. Yet, you can make peace with yourself as you look back. This the old Tesla does, securing an inner strength that we can believe in. His essence and great goodness is manifest when the old Tesla in the midst of his penury tries to help out his equally impoverished friend Mark Twain by sending him some money so Twain can make the rent. When the bellhop Luka (Luka Mijatovic) returns with the news that the great Mark Twain is no more, we realize that Tesla will soon join his friend. Though he has failed his country by not delivering the particle beam, though he has seen his country delivered into the hands of a new tyranny, in the closing scene, we do see the older Tesla achieving closure as his Katherine (Samantha Slater) comes to escort him to another place beyond the veil of tears that was his material life.
This fascinating play Tesla (at Theatre 80 until Saturday, June 8) directed by Sanja Bestic and well acted by the cast is being made into a documentary film which should be equally riveting. So many questions are raised about Tesla and those who thwarted him. The play answers many of them and proves why today Tesla is honored, loved and remembered by the millions. Check Reddit online and The Oatmeal (Matthew Inman) to get an idea of how the inventor has sparked the imagination of many.Inman inspired his followers to raise funds to establish a museum where Tesla’s lab was on Long Island. This play and the documentary may be opening a new chapter of greatness for Nikola Tesla. It’s about time.