NEW YORK—When it came to relationships, Albert Einstein was no Einstein. In fact, the famous genius’s romantic entanglements could rival the dysfunction of a typical Jerry Springer guest. That’s one takeaway of the performance piece “Dear Albert,” based on Einstein’s letters, which kicked off the World Science Festival on May 28. The staged reading, written by actor and science supporter Alan Alda, featured Cynthia Nixon, Paul Rudd and Francesca Faridany at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts.

One of the most striking revelations of “Dear Albert” is just how messy, naïve and obtuse—in short, how human—Einstein’s dealings with women were. He clearly loved his first wife, Mileva Marić, writing to her before they wed, “I feel alone with everyone except you.” Yet that love eventually soured, in part because of his devotion to his work. “He lives only for [science],” Marić wrote to a friend. “We are unimportant to him and take second place.”

Eventually Einstein pleaded for a divorce, but Marić refused. He issued a shockingly pigheaded ultimatum, agreeing to live with her if she promised to clean the house, do his laundry, serve him three meals a day in his room, expect no physical intimacy, and “stop talking to me if I request it.” To this set of demands Marić, equally shockingly, agreed. But even that détente did not work out, and the two finally divorced in 1919.

By this time Einstein had been carrying on an affair with his first cousin, Elsa Einstein, for about seven years. Yet when he finally achieved his divorce—something he and Elsa had written longingly about for years—he briefly considered marrying Elsa’s daughter, Ilse, instead. Ultimately that didn’t happen, and Albert and Elsa were married within four months of his divorce.

Their marriage was certainly more successful than his first, although Elsa, too, felt the strain of her husband’s fame and dedication to physics. “I find him wonderful, although life with him is exhausting and complicated,” she wrote. Even he admitted that his work came first. “I sold myself, body and soul, to science,” he wrote to a friend.

In the end, the fact that Einstein struggled just as much as the rest of us in love—perhaps more than most—might be comforting. No one’s good at everything. “He couldn’t have had a more chaotic personal life,” Alda said during a discussion following the play. And perhaps, he suggested, this personal chaos was part of what drove Einstein to search so hard for simplicity and truth in nature.