CAMBRIDGE — British dramatist Terry Johnson is a playful juggler of big, complicated ideas.
In “Insignificance,’’ Johnson toys with questions of time, space, knowledge, truth, political paranoia, the trap of celebrity, the subjectivity of existence, the shape of the universe, and the distance between public image and private reality. But once he gets all these colorful balls in the air, Johnson isn’t entirely sure what to do with them.
Consequently, while it’s frequently enjoyable and even mind-stretching in its conceptual audacity, “Insignificance’’ comes across as uneven and underdeveloped, too content to settle for elliptical cleverness or to drift into abstraction.
Still, even though Johnson ultimately fails to realize his play’s potential, you’ve got to hand it to the Nora Theatre Company for giving local audiences their second chance in three years to experience the work of this mold-breaking writer.
In 2011, Daniel Gidron directed the company’s production of Johnson’s “Hysteria, or Fragments of an Analysis of an Obsessional Neurosis,’’ which revolved around a tumultuous and revelatory encounter among Sigmund Freud, Salvador Dali, and a mysterious young woman played by Stacy Fischer.
Gidron is at the helm for “Insignificance,’’ which premiered in 1982 and also features characters inspired by historical figures: Albert Einstein, here called the Professor and played by the estimable Richard McElvain; Joe McCarthy, identified as the Senator and portrayed by Barry M. Press; Joe DiMaggio, called the Ballplayer and played by Alexander Platt; and Marilyn Monroe, identified as the Actress and portrayed by Fischer. It’s 1953, and each of them, beset by uncertainty of one kind or another, ends up in a New York hotel room, rendered in an aquatic blue by set designer Brynna Bloomfield.
Fischer is the single best reason to see the Nora’s “Insignificance.’’ Then again, this immensely gifted actress is often the best reason to see whatever she’s in, including last season’s Underground Railway Theater production of “Distracted,’’ where she played a frazzled mother trying to figure out the best approach for dealing with her young son after he is diagnosed with ADD.
In “Insignificance,’’ Fischer wears a curly blond wig and a white skirt like the one that billowed around Monroe in the famous subway-grate scene in “The Seven Year Itch.’’ Indeed, when she arrives at the Professor’s hotel room, the Actress is simultaneously hiding from her husband, the Ballplayer, and taking a break from shooting that scene. “I play this girl. She’s a what, not a who,’’ the Actress tells the Professor. “She has no name; she’s just a figment of some guy’s imagination.’’
Fischer channels but does not overdo Marilyn’s wide-eyed alertness, breathy voice, and shoulder rolls. More importantly, even though Marilyn’s personal agonies have been scrutinized to the point of saturation and cliché (I’m looking at you, “Smash’’), Fischer still touches us with her portrayal of a smart but undervalued woman who yearns for her intellectual aspirations to be taken seriously. That’s something Marilyn’s third husband, Arthur Miller, didn’t do, but the Professor proves willing to meet the Actress on her own questing terms, especially after she delivers an extended demonstration of the Theory of Relativity.
McElvain, barefoot and wearing a Princeton sweat shirt, with Einstein’s familiar electrified shock of white hair, deftly ranges from drolly avuncular to steely to stricken. The eminent physicist is wrestling with feelings of guilt over the role his discoveries played in helping create the atomic bomb — feelings that are crystallized in a startling, effective image near the end of the play. More immediately, the Red-hunting Senator is threatening the Professor with dire consequences if he doesn’t testify and name names the next morning before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Attired in a striped suit, hair slicked flat on his head, Press portrays the Senator as a common thug. That has been the near-universal view of McCarthy for a long time, of course; what’s more intriguing is the way the portrait of DiMaggio in “Insignificance’’ reflects the erosion of Joltin’ Joe’s once-pristine image. (A nation turns its jaundiced eyes to you . . . ) Though he has sympathetic moments, Platt’s Ballplayer primarily registers as an angry, none-too-bright, bubblegum-chewing lummox.
After a while, a faintly rote quality creeps into the scenes between the Ballplayer and the Actress, and to those between the Senator and the Professor, too. Better by far are the moments when it’s just the Actress and the Professor in that hotel room. They may be an unlikely duo, but they understand each other. Poignantly, you get the sense that no one else does.