Computer science hardly seems the stuff of riveting drama, but Hugh Whitemore's Breaking the Code finds a way to turn the geekdom of mathematics and logic into truly fascinating theater. The proof is in the production; for though the show is riddled with problems, the engrossing story of Alan Turing (Jerry Miller), the man generally considered the father of computer science, overcomes the missteps in Unhinged Productions' debut in its new downtown theater.
Turing's first success came when he broke the Enigma code used by German U-boats during World War II. The mathematician's genius helped England win the war. The hero soon was on a first-name basis with Winston Churchill; he later oversaw construction of one of the first digital computers. It was the size "of several wardrobes strung together," he tells us.
It is Turing's love of mathematics that Whitemore brings to remarkable life. When he interviews with Dillwyn Knox (Ken Cullinane) for the job at Bletchley, where he eventually breaks the German code, Turing launches into a long, sometimes breathtaking monologue about the elegant beauty inherent in mathematical logic. He gathers strands of arguments from such seminal mathematicians as Bertrand Russell, David Hilbert and Kurt Gödel and explains the genesis of his idea for a "Turing machine that would be able to scan mathematical symbols -- to read them, if you like -- to read a mathematical assertion and to arrive at the verdict as to whether or not that assertion is provable." This idea for a machine that could read multiple mathematical symbols as fast as sound traveled would become the foundation of the entire field of artificial intelligence.
Breaking the Code
Unhinged Theater, 3304 La Branch
Through Saturday, April 7. (713)524-8707. $20
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But no genius would be complete without a dark side, and in Turing's case, his personality -- "I'm always saying things I shouldn't," he says -- becomes his undoing. Brusque, irreverent and easily irritated, he managed to make a lot of people angry. His social problems were intensified by the fact that he was openly homosexual at a time when being gay could land a man in jail. In fact, Turing was imprisoned for a short period during the early '50s for "gross indecency."
His personal problems are woven into the story of his heroism. In this way, Whitemore points out the brutal ironies of systems. By breaking a systematic code, Turing became a hero, but he eventually was broken by his own inability to live within a social system. His brazen irreverence was extremely useful during the war; afterward, there was no place for his idiosyncratic ways. He committed suicide in 1954, soon after he was released from prison.
The Unhinged production is lean. A few wooden chairs and an old school desk serve as set pieces. Diane Kaste's direction is stiff at times; the actors spend lots of time upstage, standing and sitting in lines. And much of the cast lacks experience. Miller's Turing is full of fiery energy when he discusses math, but in many moments he comes off as a pompous ass, making him far more unlikable than he needs to be.
Still, this is a bit of history worth learning, and the company deserves kudos for opening its new theater with such an ambitious story.