jim lehrer's "bell" at nat geo, photo by sora devore
jim lehrer's "bell" at nat geo, photo by sora devore

“I know, you’re all here to hear about the telephone,” actor Rick Foucheux grumbles about 10 minutes into his one-man show about Alexander Graham Bell. He shakes his bearded head in frustration. If you have an hour and $30, he’d like to tell you a few success (and failure) stories, stories that don’t end with the famous phrase, “Mr. Watson, come here.” For example, did you know the inventor of the telephone was also once president of National Geographic?

By the time you leave the theater, you will. Bell is the National Geographic Society’s entertaining first venture into producing live theater at its M Street headquarters. Nor surprisingly, the production values are high, with ingenious use of lighting and projections that would make an inventor proud. But it could be said that no one buys National Geographic for the articles, and if you listen closely to the text of the play, it’s pretty clear that Bell is intended to be not only a theatrical adventure, but a National Geographic commercial.

As targeted marketing goes, however, the show is top notch. Veteran PBS newsman Jim Lehrer wrote the script, which is as witty as history-lesson plays get. Foucheux is a go-to local actor whenever a theater needs to cast a middle–aged guy with gravitas, and he’s fantastic as Bell. Director Jeremy Skidmore has Foucheux rove his onstage workshop in a constant state of slight agitation, playing with prototype metal detectors and model airplanes as he talks.

That miniature winged contraption Foucheux holds high above his bushy gray head is a model of the Silver Dart. Never heard of it? Go to Canada, Foucheux advises. “There, you can buy Silver Dart coffee mugs and mouse pads, you know, for computers.” In 1909, the “aeroplane” soared above bay in Nova Scotia for 40 minutes. Although the Silver Dart flew farther and longer than the Wright brothers’ Flyer, it did so six years too late. In 2009, Silver Dart models were made to celebrate the centennial of Canadians in flight.

“I bought one on eBay,” Foucheux says, in one of many wink-wink nods that his long-dead character is delivering a monologue in the present day. Most of these asides are amusing, but Lehrer also has his hero engage in some revisionist apologetics. Bell began his career by developing speech aids for the deaf (his beloved wife Mabel was one of his students). Later in life, the inventor would dabble in eugenics, and publicly discourage deaf people from marrying each other. Lehrer has Bell “renounce” this idea, and describe deafness as a linguistic distinction rather than a disability. Granted, it’s a tricky issue, but let’s hope one-man shows where historical characters atone for their sins in not a trend. Bell also engages in a bit of future-casting: Will he ever make the yellow-rimmed cover of National Geographic? Maybe, he speculates, in 2022, the 100th anniversary of his death. That would be delightful, just as long as the headline’s not “Alexander Graham Bell: Telephone Man.”

The show runs to Sept. 21 at National Geographic. Photo by Sora DeVore.