Clever Dick, Hampstead Theatre, London <!-- none onestar twostar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

A farce in which a talkative blonde explains the principles of nuclear fission to an eminent scientist in an American hotel room can't be accused of shyness about advertising a debt to Terry Johnson's Insignificance, where there is a similar encounter between Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein. But there are also unmistakable nods to Tom Stoppard and Michael Frayn in Crispin Whittell's erudite, fitfully entertaining drama about misplaced certainty, the origins of Cold War paranoia, a cracked safe, an exploding toad and a bouncing nun.

As in the author's last play, Darwin in Malibu, there's an attempt to raise serious issues in a wacky context. But the potty posthumous perspective of the earlier piece, which reunited three Victorian thinkers in a present-day Californian afterlife, provided a genuinely revealing angle on the old religion-versus-science debate. In the new work, the imaginary situation turns out to be oddly self-defeating.

The play is set in June 1945, a month before the testing of the first atomic bomb. In a state of suicidal desperation, the eccentric physicist Richard Feynman (Adrian Rawlins), who was a key figure on the Manhattan Project, checks into a New Mexico hotel room. His attempt to get a night's sleep is disrupted by a bad case of double-booking and mistaken identity. First, the receptionist, Matilda (Jennifer Higham), climbs into his bed, confusing him with her on-leave sailor boyfriend. Then, making one of his entries through the ceiling, Corey Johnson's bone-headed counter-intelligence agent (the other "clever dick" of the title) arrives, determined to nail Feynman as a communist spy, and convinced that his Soviet contact is Matilda's lover (the play's other historical figure, Conrad Hilton Jr, heir to the hotel empire).

But the topical satire on American paranoia and compulsion to demonise opposition is muddied by the fact that atomic secrets really were being passed to the Russians (both in real life and offstage in the play).

Whittell's production is attractively acted (especially by Rawlins, and Jamie King as a marine) but the farce is underpowered.

To 17 June (020-7722 9301)

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