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Astrophysics Lite

When you get down to the nitty-gritty, even Nobel laureate physicists, despite their high-minded ambition to uncover the mysteries of the universe, end up working for food and sex — and eventually to grab some kind of love that will steady them into retirement.

Or so it goes in Jamie Pachino's Splitting Infinity, which opened last week at Florida Stage with split results.

The drama, its second unveiling, after a world premiere last month in Rochester, New York, telescopes into the past and present lives of two lifelong friends, astrophysicist Leigh and rabbi Saul, played in one incarnation by younger actors Tory Schulman and Dustin Sullivan and in another by the older Lisa Bostnar and Stephen Schnetzer.

Even from the first scene of wide-eyed students atop an observatory, battle lines are drawn between these symbols of science and religion — the secular searching for answers at the far reaches of the cosmos versus the celebration of God as found in man's earthbound interactions.

Splitting Infinity's defining question, though, is what happens when lonely, brilliant physicists approach their fifties as they, to appropriate the play's language, reflect back light years on the big bang fire of adolescent excitement.

Present-day Nobelist Leigh carries a scientist-as-Bono status that's able to attract the romantic interest of the likes of a baby-faced, star-fucking grad student (Brad Barfield). But as Leigh also discovers, the midlife crises of cosmologists have less to do with Botox than with taking on the play's challenge of scientifically proving, or disproving, God's existence.

Leigh's office is cluttered with computers, a chalkboard for late-night calculations, and that dangerously convertible futon so necessary for, um, teacher-student conferences. But most prominently featured is the set design's central ooh-ahh device, a retractable ring of metal decking periodically unveiled from behind the stage's rear wall. It's a patio telescope viewing area that creates physicality for young Leigh and Saul's philosophical debates about the universe's evolution.

From that pedestal, Pachino's drama brings on a fight between physics and religion, especially impressive as she avoids the trite route of combining Sunday school and physics, opting instead for physics and schule. Considering the paramount roles played by Jews in the history of modern physics, from Einstein to Oppenheimer, this direction could be — but turns out not to be — terribly relevant for our viewing.

Splitting Infinity instead cleaves into two different experiences — a science play that doesn't quite work and a drama about faltering friendships that succeeds.

In the narrowly defined genre of "science plays," the bar is raised high by Brecht's Galileo and, more recently, by Auburn's Proof, Frayn's Copenhagen, and even Stoppard's elusively scientific Arcadia and Hapgood.

What makes a "science play" isn't simply inclusion of wink-wink jokes about Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle by cliché-dropping mathematician caricatures but an overarching dramatic structure that, in some way, provides commentary on the scientific process. Galileo, especially after Brecht's post-Nazism rewrite, explored the way in which society negotiates the questions that scientists ask. The structure of Copenhagen was like the structure of scientific paper writing itself, as mentor Niels Bohr and protégé Werner Heisenberg redrafted the history of a singular evening in the political history of atomic physics. Proof was, well, structurally, itself a sort-of mathematical proof.

Splitting Infinity, like Florida Stage's awry Cradle of Man earlier this year, however, again sprinkles science flavoring, like condiments, into discourse about love, relationships, and personal development. Abstract science metaphors are repeated ad nauseum so that, by intermission, even the most compliant theatergoer grows weary.

For Cradle of Man's look into anthropology, it was the cheeky "evolution" of relationships from primate to modern man. For Splitting Infinity, it's humans as metaphorical burning stars consuming themselves.

Astrophysicist Leigh is developed as a dying star with the need to feed, selfishly devouring bourbon, Chinese food, and men, until she finally goes supernova at the end and collapses in on herself. Yeah, we get it, as we hear over and over that Leigh is the bright star and rabbi Saul is her smaller, white dwarf star, the friend who's always there, until he's not. In this self-help version of a science play, you just can't wait for the metaphors to stop.

If you block the trite parallelisms out, though, Pachino's focus on the relationship of the scientist and the rabbi pans out successfully on a different level — that of exploring friendships diluted through the years.

This split play works, thanks to the intimate directing of Louis Tyrrell of actors neatly paired in the Leigh-Saul connection, as well as to some throwaway yet funny and sensitive supporting performances by Barfield as the ill-fated grad student and Lourelene Snedeker as his Christian Scientist mama.

The scenes that make the friendship play hit your heart ultimately belong to the quality pairing of the actors. Each scene in which Bostnar's Leigh reminisces with Schnetzer's Saul about their shared childhood, of the welcoming candles and prayers of Sabbath at Saul's parents' home, shines bright.

Even brighter are the scenes featuring the pair's younger versions, actors Schulman and Sullivan, from their joyful bantering in the observatory to their arguments that ultimately separate their worldviews. Schulman and Sullivan work so remarkably well together that, if you could fuse their scenes with some of the adults' candle scenes while disregarding much of the rest, you'd have a much shorter but more singularly beautiful experience.

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Dave Amber