Theater

Tortured Genius Is Tortured

Boy Wonders Go Awry in Patrick Wohlmut's Continuum

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I'VE NEVER ACTUALLY met a tortured genius, but if popular entertainment is to be believed, they're everywhere—high-strung, tormented savants who solve complex equations before they can talk and compose violin sonatas in their spare time. Oh, and usually they could use a haircut.

Playwright Patrick Wohlmut's Continuum focuses on not one, but two such boy wonders: math whiz Craig (Matthew Dieckman) and science genius Peter (Robert McGranahan). Peter is a professor whose once-promising career has been derailed by his pet theory that Jupiter isn't really a planet; Craig is a brilliant, possibly crazy fraudster who dupes his victims by posing as a harmless homeless guy. The story cuts between the prison cell where Craig is being held and flashback sequences describing the relationship between the two men, as Craig insinuates himself into Peter's life, begins collaborating on his Jupiter theory, and eventually steals his research funds.

This is half good premise, half bad premise: A mathematician and an astronomer working together on a problem is metaphorically interesting, full of dramatic potential, and it's easy to see how areas of professional overlap might be paralleled by personal synchronicities. The posing as a crazy homeless guy part? Not so great. Craig's scheming is overly complicated, and Wohlmut works too hard to highlight similarities between the two characters. Both were raised by single, abusive fathers; both allowed their fathers to define their careers, albeit in slightly different ways. In each case, the abuse backstory feels like a shortcut to character development, and it forces a too-literal parallel between two men who already have plenty in common. Fortunately, director Stan Foote (full disclosure: Foote is my boyfriend's boss at Oregon Children's Theatre) snagged Matthew Dieckman to play Craig; Dieckman's performance is absolutely great, finding humor in a role that offers precious little of it, and playing his character's manic episodes with relative restraint.

Continuum is interested in how a faulty premise can derail a career and how a faulty childhood can derail a life. The show has moments of real tenderness, as Craig slowly begins to wrap his head around the possibility of caring for another person, and being cared for in return. But the threads that work are jumbled together with some real clunkers, and the show's emotional core is obscured by needless complexity, adding complication without adding depth.

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