Breaking the Code

By Philip Pearce

BREAKING THE CODE, which just opened at Jewel Theatre in Santa Cruz, joins an exciting succession of recent plays about the wonders  of math and science. 

Pac Rep audiences watched enthralled as the teen hero of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time worked through a full-length proof of a mathematical theorem. Leading ladies in Western Stage’s Legacy of Light and Jewel’s Silent Sky faced the challenges of being female in the male-dominated world of astronomy. 

Older than any of those scripts, Breaking the Code, introduced 1986 London audiences to a brilliant, little-known mathematician/cryptologist named Alan Turing. The fact that it was he who had broken the notorious Nazi Enigma encryption code had just been revealed after decades of silence in the Top Secret files of World War 2. The recent Benedict Cumberbatch film, The Imitation Game, focuses on strategic and political implications of Turing’s pioneer code-breaking work at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire. 

Breaking the Code cares more about the almost erotic power mathematics exerted on the inner life of a complex scientific genius, whose struggles weren’t just scientific. Turing was sexually attracted to men, not women, and was as open about that fact as British society in his day was rigidly insistent that homosexuality was a disease and criminal life style. Whitmore’s compelling script reminds us that a reputedly impenetrable foreign encryption system wasn’t the only code attacked by Alan Turing.

It’s a multi-faceted role that won for Derek Jacobi the kind of stage esteem he had already garnered for his television appearances in I Claudius. Video of the BBC television version of his performance as Turing gives the vivid impression of a man who, even in middle age, still acts like an awkward, star-struck scientific schoolboy. John Castle, whom I saw when he inherited the role from Jacobi, added a characteristic note of brooding intensity. In Jewel’s new production, Equity actor David Arrow seems focused and fussy. He mines the character’s nervous vulnerability but leavens it with flashes of sudden smiling humor. 

Director Kirsten Brandt admirably exploits the way the Whitemore script deals with the people who figure significantly in Turing’s life from his days as a student at Manchester University to his death in 1954, at age 41. Again and again you are presented with seemingly predictable and familiar British theatrical characters who then open out into individualized human who refuse to be stereotyped.  

A Manchester bloke named Ron Miller seems at first to be just another shady bisexual petty thief who exploits Alan’s perfunctory sexual advances and steals seven quid from his coat pocket. Yet when his scientist bed partner begins to speak about the idea of a new mechanical “brain” he calls a computer, actor Wallace Bruce skillfully projects a sincere and touching fascination with an idea the Miller character has only previously encountered in sci-fi flicks he’s watched at the local Odeon. 

As Turing’s mother Sara, Emilie Talbot is initially a conventional feather-brained mum from a British TV sit-com. Then, confronted by her son’s arrest under the Gross Indecency laws and an explanation of the charges, she is, yes, appropriately hysterical and appalled, but becomes a surprise ally in his opposition to prevailing moral standards and a guardian of his posthumous reputation.

Rolf Saxon’s portrayal of Dillwyn Knox, Turing’s government boss and mentor at Bletchley Park, is particularly memorable. In ideology and outlook, Knox is everything Turing isn’t—conventional in his middle class moral standards, limited in his scientific knowledge. A lesser actor and playwright would have been satisfied to craft a nice comic Colonel Blimp type and leave it at that.  Instead, they combine to create a man who practices unimpeachable British correctness and normality with such a gruff conviction and honesty that he ends up the most consistently appealing character in the play.

An enthusiastic Bletchley Park colleague named Pat Green, played with wit and intelligence by Maryssa Wanlass, decides and confesses pretty early on that she loves Alan. With characteristic candor he says he loves her too—but as a friend with whom he can never share the ultimate act of human love. A picnic together, late in the action, makes it clear that this work-related, essentially intellectual, non-sexual relationship has been the most stable and enduring in either of their lives.

Seen quite a lot but not heard much, Matthew Kropschot is appropriately mystic and appealing if a bit too tall and commanding as a dead classmate named Christopher whom Alan loved and still dreams about from their days at Sherborne School. Kropschot seems much more physically suited to a second role which exploits his physique and offers him lines—though they are all in Greek!

Jeffrey (Geoff) Fiorito as a policeman named Mick Ross and David Bryant as a government functionary with the generic name of John Smith offer excellent, believable work in roles that are less detailed and nuanced but equally important in the career of a man who, virtually unknown 35 years ago, was last year voted the greatest person of the twentieth century in a BBC poll.

Turing’s pioneer work on a mechanical “brain” functioning free of the pressures of human emotion becomes a metaphor for his desire not to suppress but to mentally control the heartaches and thousand natural shocks his flesh is heir to. This flesh and spirit conflict is dramatized in what to me is the sharpest and funniest sequence in the play. Settled in for a romantic same-sex weekend in Athens, the mature Turing, who speaks no Greek, lunges amorously toward Kropschot, who is now a muscular Greek named Niklos who speaks no English. But Turin’s love making gets abruptly sidetracked as he launches into an extended explication of a recently published mathematical theory. His rhapsody becomes more and more ecstatic, while the puzzled Niklos continues to lounge half-naked and ignored on a divan.      

Whitemore’s text is compelling in its flexibility and completeness. The enraptured Turing soliloquies on the glories of science and math are skillfully written and excitingly staged and lit. But I began to wonder as opening night moved on, whether there were maybe one or two too many of them to be easily processed by a scientific amateur like me.

Back home in Seaside, however, I found encouragement in a sentence from Jewel’s Artistic Director Julie James’ program notes. “Even if you don’t understand the complicated systems (Turing) studied and created,” she writes, “you can still be amazed and inspired by his genius, passion and determination.” 

And I was.

Jewel Theatre Company continues Breaking the Code on weekends through April 14th.

Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo: David Arrow as Alan Turing and Wallace Bruce as Ron Miller.