Review: Tom Key seeks the mysteries of life in the tour de force “R. Buckminster Fuller”

Tom Key as the renaissance  man (and scientist) R. Buckminster Fuller. (Photos by BreeAnne Clowdus)
Tom Key as the renaissance man (and scientist) R. Buckminster Fuller. (Photos by BreeAnne Clowdus)
Tom Key as the renaissance  man (and scientist) R. Buckminster Fuller. (Photos by BreeAnne Clowdus)
Tom Key as the Renaissance Man (and scientist) R. Buckminster Fuller. (Photos by BreeAnne Clowdus)

The one-man show R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (And Mystery) of the Universe opens with the toss of a coin. The actor never tells us whether it’s landed on heads or tails. His interest, we learn, is somewhere else entirely, in the fact that it falls, it always falls. 

In the new play, written by D.W. Jacobs and adapted from the writings of the renowned 20th-century scientist and author R. Buckminster Fuller, Tom Key plays the complicated and intriguing figure, laying out the idiosyncratic thinker’s unusual but essentially hopeful vision.

In its subject, theme and outlook, it’s a show seemingly tailor-made for the master performer: funny, personable, wise, engaging, grappling with the big questions, well-acquainted with the darker aspects of humanity, but fundamentally optimistic at heart. The show runs at Theatrical Outfit through October 25. 

In the middle of the show’s second act, we hear Fuller rant against the idea of academic specialization (he believed it went against human beings’ natural sense of curiosity about the big questions). As we see throughout the show, Fuller himself defiantly remained a generalist, literally curious about everything. It’s one of the reasons it’s difficult to briefly encapsulate who he was; his interests and accomplishments are so diverse. Scientist, environmentalist, philosopher, inventor, author, architect, Fuller always wore a number of hats. 

DUAr5S-oG0gtWGBjFKGKFthKv-XXUVHRg4GEqh2QzLUHe is perhaps best known as the designer of the geodesic dome and the originator of the phrase “spaceship earth” and the concept of “synergy,” all of which are considered during the course of the show.

Much of the performance takes the form of a scientific lecture (less dry than it sounds). It’s made accessible through powerful metaphors, intriguing anecdotes and simple demonstrations. Parts of the show may bring to mind the popular TED Talk viral videos (again, less awful than it may sound). 

Since Fuller was presciently an early environmentalist, this aspect actually has a great deal of urgency and significance. But it’s when speaking of his biography and his personal experience — his early childhood and sense of wonder with the physical world, his expulsion from Harvard (he tells us he was never good with memorization or authority), his marriage and loss of a child, his meeting with Albert Einstein and so on — that the character comes most vividly to life. 

These moments contain the most engaging writing in the show, and they’re also the moments that Key seemingly connects most deeply to. They’re also the segments that are the most entertaining, when the science can often turn repetitive or hard-to-grasp.

At two acts that clock in at a little over two-and-a-half hours, the show starts to feel a little long for its purpose. But it clearly has as its intention, not just the introduction of Fuller and his ideas, but the illumination of his entirely original way of thinking about the universe, a picture that can only emerge with time. 

Strangely, with so much time and effort devoted to give us a complete picture of Fuller, some crucial questions go unanswered. At one point, I was intrigued by Fuller’s suggestion that his severely handicapped young daughter Alexandra’s death might have been avoided if she’d been given “the proper environment.” It’s a terribly self-torturing thing for a parent to say, but it’s never expounded on. 

I admired the set, a geodesic lecture hall from outer space by frequent Atlanta set designers Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay, but I felt that some of the additional elements — the lighting changes, the projections and especially the corny incidental music — were distracting, when the intimacy and plainspokenness of the show would have been better left untouched. 

Still, there’s seldom been a better match of performer to character than Key as Fuller, and it’s a show well worth catching while it’s here. 

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