`Breaking the Code': tribute and tragedy. Drama depicts the downfall of a noted mathematician

Breaking the Code Play by Hugh Whitemore, based on the book ``Alan Turing, The Enigma,'' by Andrew Hodges. Directed by Clifford Williams. Starring Derek Jacobi. Near the end of ``Breaking the Code,'' the challenging British import at the Neil Simon Theatre, Alan Turing observes philosophically: ``In the long run, all things considered, it's not breaking the code that matters - it's where you go from there. That's the real problem....'' Two scenes later, the man who broke the German Enigma Code takes his own life.

Through a series of scenes in a revolving time frame (1929-54), playwright Hugh Whitemore has created a viable theater work from Andrew Hodges's biography ``Alan Turing, The Enigma.''

The progress of Turing's life is traced from precocious adolescence to a brilliant but maladjusted middle age, including a homosexual life style in conflict with the legal and moral code of his time. In the central role of a play that is both tribute and ironic tragedy, Derek Jacobi relives for the fascinated spectator the events that led to Turing's stunning achievement and temporary but fatal disgrace.

``Breaking the Code'' begins with ``where you go from there'' - that is to say, in the aftermath of Turing's indispensable contribution to the code-breaking countermeasures against the German submarine campaign in World War II. In an all-purpose hangar - created by set and costume designer Liz da Costa to accommodate shifting locales, and lighted by Natasha Katz - Turing is being interrogated about a burglary by detective Mick Ross (a calm but persistent Colm Meaney).

Thereafter, the drama moves back and forth between the increasingly ominous police interview scenes and the events that preceded and followed the investigation. An early incident recalls how an awkwardly adolescent Turing, a nail biter and slight stutterer, and his mother (a maternally caring Rachel Gurney) entertain Christopher Morcom (appealingly played by Robert Sean Leonard). Morcom is the slightly senior schoolmate on whom Alan had set his heart and who died not long afterward.

Turing's career at Bletchley Park intelligence headquarters is treated through his encounters with Dilwyn Knox (a cheerfully avuncular Michael Gough) and with Pat Green (charming Jenny Agutter), the bright fellow mathematician whose friendship he cherishes but whose love he cannot return.

His homosexual relationships are centered on Ron Miller (Michael Dolan), a young working-class north countryman indirectly involved in the burglary that causes Turing's subsequent trouble with the law.

As developments unfold, Mr. Jacobi creates an unforgettable portrait of the eccentric loner, the untidy odd man out, the aloof intellectual whose overriding passion is the solution of mathematical and philosophic riddles.

In the course of the dialogues, and especially in the amusing lecture at his old school, Turing explains ``the electronic brain'' that came to be known as the digital computer. The scruffy savant propounds its ability not only to learn but to think and even create.

Broadway playgoers remembering his Cyrano and Tony Award-winning Benedick will find Jacobi's performance a new revelation.

Even spectators who share Mrs. Turing's fascinated bafflement with her son's vocabulary may find his explanations at least momentarily lucid in Jacobi's handling of Mr. Whitemore's riveting text. Meanwhile, the star is filling in the details of the stage portrait - the dedicated genius of formulas and equations, the intuitive thinker, the committed iconoclast, the sometimes crusty colleague, the neglected winner of an OBE. With it all, there is the diffident naif whose casual admission of a homosexual episode leads to his indictment under the ``gross indecency act'' then in force. (The laws were changed in 1957.)

``Breaking the Code'' is full of arresting resonances such as the two-edged application of ``code'' to Turing's code breaking, and of ``enigma'' to the man himself. Morcom's denunciation of a fellow schoolboy's lie prefigures the silly fabrication in which Turing traps himself. A passing reference to the poisoned apple in ``Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs'' subtly anticipates Turing's final act.

Without didacticism, Whitemore presents a series of conflicts involving moral predicaments and dilemmas, definitions of right and wrong, the relations of consequences to acts - the ``where you go from there.''

The ensemble surrounding Jacobi helps immeasurably to establish and sustain the emotional balances of the human equation in this strange and disquieting play.

The cast, discerningly directed by Clifford Williams, includes Richard Clark as a security-conscious ministry bureaucrat and Andreas Manolikakis as the uncomprehending young Greek islander to whom Turing explains the top secret code-breaking while repairing an ancient radio.

Such are the touches with which Whitemore seeks to illuminate the enigmatic central figure in what may well prove to be the most important serious play of the season.

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