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Stage Review

The struggle to integrate thinking with feeling

‘Code’ gets inside mathematician’s brilliant mind

Allyn Burrows plays British mathematician Alan Turing in Hugh Whitemore’s “Breaking the Code.’’ Allyn Burrows plays British mathematician Alan Turing in Hugh Whitemore’s “Breaking the Code.’’ (A.R. Sinclair Photography)
By Terry Byrne
Globe Correspondent / April 14, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE — In “Breaking the Code,’’ the brilliant British mathematician Alan Turing waxes poetic at the possibility of a brain released from the burden of a body. Turing’s struggle to integrate thinking with feeling, and his ultimate failure to do so, are at the heart of playwright Hugh Whitemore’s drama. Director Adam Zahler’s imaginative vision for the Catalyst Collaborative@MIT and Underground Railway Theater’s current production emphasizes that notion with a set that suggests the audience’s perspective is inside Turing’s mind, with the outside world revolving all around him. While creating a sense of the brain’s complicated connections, Janie E. Howland’s arena staging also reminds us of Turing’s nightmare of being trapped inside a computer, unable to escape.

With the focus on a character more comfortable in his mind than in his body, the challenge for the actor playing Turing is to find a way to anchor all the cerebral ideas in the heart of a living, breathing, human being. British actor Derek Jacobi, who performed the role on Broadway and in the 1996 BBC-TV version, re-created Turing’s real-life characteristics, including his stutter and penchant for biting his nails. For this production, Allyn Burrows includes a bit of a stutter but eschews other mannerisms in favor of a performance stripped of any artifice, delivering an intellectual whose emotional openness ultimately becomes his downfall.

The play opens with Burrows as a wide-eyed Turing naively filing a complaint with the police about a recent burglary at his home. The problem is, the policeman (Dafydd ap Rees), isn’t buying Turing’s confusing tale about a salesman who tipped him off about a possible burglar, a story Turing concocted to cover up a homosexual relationship. The scene then shifts back in time to Turing’s boyhood home, where a school friend (Danny Bryck) is visiting. The admiration Turing has for his pal is obvious in Burrows’s open, loving expression, especially when he confesses his hope they might someday set up house where they could live and work together on the mathematical proofs that excite their passion. The play continues to shift back and forth in time, from Turing’s secret wartime work breaking the Nazis’ Enigma code, an achievement Winston Churchill credited with winning the war, to his work developing the first computing machine, to his humiliating trial and punish ment for “gross indecency.’’ Along the way we also learn about his fascination with the complexity of mathematical proofs that are not as simple as black and white, or right and wrong, as well as his determination to take responsibility for his choices, which nearly always lands him in trouble.

Burrows’s ability to keep his emotional responses right on the surface, whether he’s responding to the ditsy reactions of his mother (Debra Wise, in a thankless role), or desperately asking his lover to stay for breakfast, gives Turing a remarkable sense of vulnerability and pathos that contrasts nicely with his intellectual superiority.

Whitemore blithely quotes number theorist Kurt Godel, philosophers Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, and even has Turing deliver a talk comparing the brain to cold porridge, which creates a fairly static drama. Luckily, Burrows gets essential assists in multiple roles from Rees, as the diffident policeman and wise, wartime boss, Bryck as three of Turing’s lovers, and Liz Hayes as the woman who loved him.

Burrows’s triumph in this role is making the connections between the heart and the head that Whitemore’s script doesn’t always provide.

Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.

BREAKING THE CODE Play by Hugh Whitemore

Directed by Adam Zahler

Set, Janie E. Howland. Lights, Franklin Meissner, Jr. Costumes, Frances Nelson McSherry. Sound, Bill Barclay.

Presented by the Catalyst Collaborative@MIT and Underground Railway Theater at Central Square Theater through May 8. Tickets: $30, $40. 866-811-4111, www.centralsquaretheater.org