Another helping of Alan Turing homage is being served at the Eureka Theater these next few weeks with Theatre Rhinoceros’ “Breaking the Code”, which premiered Saturday night and runs through March 21. Following last year's Oscar-nominated biopic “The Imitation Game”, the Pet Shop Boys’ tribute “A Man from the Future”, and Turing’s September inclusion on the Castro’s Rainbow Honor Walk, Alan Turing is suddenly trendier than a gold smartwatch. Here Turing gets the biographical treatment in a revival of the 1986 Hugh Whitemore play with local theater legend John Fisher as Turing.
I will admit to being a humongous John Fisher fanboy, as any Bay Area theater enthusiast ought to be. His “Medea: The Musical” won numerous Critics Circle Awards (including Best Musical), and I am personally counting down the days until his “Timon!: The Musical” plays outdoors at the Yerba Buena Gardens this June. Fisher is dynamite as Alan Turing, and so is the entire “Breaking the Code” cast. But be warned this is a very “Downton Abbey”/”Masterpiece Theatre” type of stiff-upper-lip production. Like Turing himself, “Breaking the Code” feels sort of emotionally detached.
Unlike the “Imitation Game” film, “Breaking the Code” focuses on more on Turing’s homosexuality than his breaking of the Germans’ Enigma code. Still, the script has about as much passion as a computer program. Fisher is a wonderful and accomplished playwright, he perhaps ought to have nuked this script and written his own version.
Fisher does an outstanding job capturing the fidgety awkwardness of a gay nerd in a world where his sexuality gets him charged with the crime of “gross indecency”. The whole cast turns in remarkable performances as Turing’s various lovers, beards, colleagues and prosecutors. But this prim, very British interpretation would have benefited from a few more shouting matches, thrown dishes or screaming breakdowns. Turing is forced to endure a chemical castration, which sounds pretty horrible. But instead of the scenery-chewing lament this indignity so richly deserves, it gets just a few sentences delivered in fairly matter-of-fact tone.
Even Turing’s suicide — which is depicted onstage — is a surprisingly flat and formulaic moment. That is a scene that should have brought the house down and had the audience weeping in our plastic wine cups. Instead, it served to alert us that “Oh, this thing must be wrapping up soon.”
“Breaking the Code” is memorable for its cast’s terrific performances, but not a whole lot else. There are some lovely costumes, engaging lines and overall more historical accuracy than the recent big budget Hollywood version of Turing’s life. But as a historical drama, “Breaking the Code” doesn’t break out much drama.