CAMBRIDGE — Consider that to “know what time it is” is a colloquialism that means, more or less, that someone completely understands a given situation.
Is a world in which that meaning is so easily intuited very different from the one depicted in “Einstein’s Dreams,” where people look at the clock to tell them when to eat, or love, or end a visit to the theater? Or another world described in that play, where people bow to the “Great Clock” to worship time not as a measuring tool but as an entity unto itself?
No. Or at least that’s the suggestion made by writer-director Wesley Savick in his adaptation of “Einstein’s Dreams,” from MIT professor Alan Lightman’s 1993 novel. Savick directs his version in a hyperactive but ultimately charming production by Underground Railway Theater, running at Central Square Theater through Nov. 14. The show made its world premiere with the same cast in 2007 and has only been produced once more since then.
The conceit behind Lightman’s deeply imaginative source material is that it presents a journal of Einstein’s nocturnal musings as he developed his theories of general and special relativity. In each, a version of the world is presented in which time works differently. It moves slower the further one gets from the center of the Earth in one, so an upper class has taken to living in tall buildings atop mountains. In another, three different versions of each event play out simultaneously, resulting in an infinite network of possible realities.
As playwright, Savick chooses a chunk of the 30 “dreams” detailed in Lightman’s book and dramatizes them with three actors and an onstage musician, who plays jaunty pieces on accordion. As director, Savick keeps things moving at a nearly breathless pace, having his cast race around the stage like electrons, protons, and ions speeding around a particle accelerator.
Each situation is described in fluid, overlapping dialogue handled deftly by Debra Wise and Steven Barkhimer, as real-world office-mates of the 26-year old Einstein and as “dreamtellers.” They buzz around Robert Najarian as Einstein, who attractively depicts the man as an ever-curious intellectual who in a pinch can perform somersaults, a cartwheel, or a headstand.
The effect sometimes is that of speed without movement. Adhering to the spirit of the novel, Savick doesn’t choose to linger very long in any of these postulated worlds. It’s almost beside the point to note that there’s a whole lot of telling and much less showing. Still it succeeds. “Einstein’s Dreams” excels in those quietly eloquent moments when it becomes more than a laundry list of clever ideas — like when Najarian mimics playing a violin whose song is infinitely replicated, as his silhouette appears in duplicate and a tragic sense of futility appears on his face.
In a lovely sequence, the effects of backward-moving time are shown. Einstein the everyman progresses from old age to youth, and experiences childbirth in reverse. He goes further back, into the reproductive systems of his parents. Then, “one day he becomes a flash of light. Then nothing.” Conception as death.
This is not a “Physics for Dummies” exercise meant to educate audiences about Einstein’s work. Some of the scenarios are suggested by string theory and quantum physics, and as Wise (who is also Railway’s artistic director) points out in the program notes, only one is a direct representation of Einstein’s theories on relativity. Rather, it’s much like a series of intellectual fables — more Jorge Luis Borges than “Cosmos.”
When this play is the most dreamlike, perhaps, it has the most to say about reality — the one we find in this world, that is.
Written and directed by Wesley Savick. Based on the book by Alan Lightman. Presented by Underground Railway Theater. At Central Square Theater, Cambridge, through Nov. 14. Tickets: 617-576-9278, www.centralsquare