In big close-ups on screen, Hedy Lamarr always seemed as if her mind was elsewhere. Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and other movie glamour girls of the 40s also gave off this remote quality, but it turns out Lamarr wasn’t just thinking about what to have for dinner or who might take her out on the town at night. In her spare time, Lamarr was devising a system of communication that would be the basis for many technological advances, including the cellular phone. This essential innovation of hers is still not widely known; she’s more famous for being the first actress to do a nude scene, in the erotic and touching Czech film Ecstasy (1932), in which she swims in the buff. Never much of an actress, her later years were marked by a penchant for shoplifting and capricious litigation.
Lamarr couldn’t live the notoriety of Ecstasy down; she even titled her lurid, ghostwritten autobiography Ecstasy and Me. But in Elyse Singer’s new play, Frequency Hopping, the worldly 26-year-old Lamarr (Erica Newhouse) feels guiltier about her first marriage to munitions maker Fritz Mandl than about this scandalous film. The play makes it clear that Lamarr was privy to a lot of inside information when she was Mandl’s wife during the mid-30s; she heard plans and ideas at her dinner parties straight from Hitler and Mussolini themselves. Consequently, though she seems to have it all as an MGM contract star in 1940, the Lamarr of this play knows what’s coming in the next war, and she’s quietly obsessed with inventing a way of jamming radio communication so that American and British submarines and airplanes will have the advantage over the Nazis. Frequency Hopping is as dedicated to technology as Lamarr was; there are up-to-the-minute multimedia effects projected on screens as flimsy and beautiful as the star’s Adrian gowns. The play also features a large electronic orchestra playing a score by Joshua Fried, and the use of his music is pervasive and often unexpected, dovetailing with the way Lamarr’s ideas are stimulated by her partnership with composer George Antheil (Joseph Urla). In long, patient scenes between Urla and Newhouse, on a handsome Hollywood living room set designed by Elaine J. McCarthy, Antheil stimulates Lamarr’s ideas with his own musical way of thinking, so that the invention they create together looks and sounds a lot like Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system of atonal music, in which each note has its own value. The actors chase each other around a couch and try to harmonize their sounds, while the visuals (also by McCarthy) provide a helpful and never condescending way of following the sometimes arcane scientific data.
This is a very distanced play; the two actors are so far away from the audience in the 3LD Art and Technology Center space that microphones are necessary (and poetically just). Lamarr, arguably, had one of the most beautiful faces in movies, and though Newhouse doesn’t really look like her, she uncannily suggests the star’s stately kittenishness and harsh voice (the black, silky quality of her hair is also exactly right). Urla comes through less strongly, maybe because Singer is more interested in making a statement about Lamarr, and how her brains were wasted on war bond kissing giveaways. Frequency Hopping is the kind of play that denies you pleasure in the moment only to give you the pleasure of thought afterward, and this is entirely appropriate as a tribute to the rare Lamarr, who had a Marie Curie mind to match her Helen of Troy face.