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CurtainUp Berkshires Review
It begins with a college thesis on evolution by Henry Tollman (Matt McGrath), the son of a college professor who raised him literate, but pop-culturally illiterate. The thesis not going well . Except for its novel aim to write it without using the letter "e" it's, as his professor puts it, "as unfocused as ginger ale without fizz. " On the other hand Henry's relationship with an art student symbolically named Hope (Marin Hinkle) is sexy and promising enough for a spring break visit to meet her family in Los Angeles.
After a sexy plane ride to the West Coast Henry and Hope's love story evolves into a triangle in which the vulnerable innocent abroad Henry becomes the pawn between Hope and her modern Mephistopheles of a brother Ernie (Justin Kirk). With Ernie to lead him down the rabbit hole, Henry's inventive wit (of which the attempt at e-less writing was a portent ) finds its focus by metamorphosing into Eve-olution a super successful sitcom.
Welcome to another in the ever-growing list of stage and screen fables about that triumvirate of corruption -- money, power and fame -- luring those with a bent for less trivial pursuits capable of into the quicksand of sleaze. It is a world ruled by men in suits who dominate the movie and television industry. It is a world in which Darwin's ground breaking book is a "historic blip" relegated to the back of the big bus driven and owned by the likes of Madonna. Its language is laden with more show-biz references than a pizza with all the trimmings.
Sherman has also invented one of the best narrators to grace a stage in a long time. In this world premiere, snappily staged by Nicho"las Martin, Dylan Baker brings this juicy role to its full realization. His "homage to Peter Sellers includes periodic stints as storytelling host, as well as some of the play's best characters. These include Hope's father, a psychologist with his own share of hangups in need of analysis and a TV producer .
br> The actors playing the other characters also do full justice to their parts. Matt McGrath's Henry is persuasively vulnerable -- first to love, then to the lure of power and finally to frustrated rage. His transformation from pop-cultural naïf, to "Pretty Woman" who likes success and wants an Emmy is almost scary in its conviction. Marin Hinkle, who was a pivotal asset in the recent Berkshire Theatre Festival's Transit of Venus (see link), again gives a fine performance. Her Hope Braverman needs all the qualities implicit in her first and last name to cope with her dysfunctional relatives -- absent mother, father with a penchant for phone sex and, last and most awful, her pill-popping, lay-about brother Ernie who sees Henry as his ticket to Lotus Land fame.
Justin Kirk's portrait of Ernie translates the term sleaze bucket into monstrous reality. His nasal emissions of sarcastic wit and wisdom spew forth like venom from a cobra. He shrugs off a college diploma as "just an $80,000 paper airplane." When Henry hankers for critical respect for Eve-olution he shrugs off television critics "nothing more than robbers to the Mafia." To Ernie ambition, not Darwin is evolution and that ambition is inextricably tied to shlock.
The minor actors round out the ensemble excellence. Sam Breslin Wright embodies the toadying studio "Suit". Phone sex is just another role to play for success hungry young actress portrayed by Anna Belknap.
Why with all this good acting and highly charged, high tech staging does the play Evolution end up with the same lack of fizz as Henry's thesis on the same subject? The answer resides in the second act's shift from comedy to morality play. On this more serious note, Sherman does write one powerful scene . Henry, now rich enough to own a valuable Darwin letter instead of writing a paper about the man is confronted by Hope who accuses him of having "learned to rationalize bullshit." This leads Henry to finally come to grips with the effect of his father's breakdown and institutionalization. With the exception of that scene, however, the shifting of the gears from comedy to sermonizing does little to enlist one's sympathy for what happens to any of these people.
br>As Henry finally attacks Ernie and yells "Where's my diploma?" you may, like me, find yourself paraphrasing his question with: "Where's the emotional payoff in all this?"
Other plays with related themes and background that we've reviewed:
As Bees in Honey Drown
As Thousands Cheer
Mizlansky/Zelinsky or "Schmucks"
(The) Big Knife
The Dying Gaul
Other plays mentioned:
The Most Fabulous Story Every Told
Transit of Venus