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A CurtainUp Review
An Experiment with an Air Pump

I will be remembered as a great physician and you, Roget, as a man who made lists
--- Dr. Armstrong to Peter Mark Roget.
As in the badminton game during which the ruthlessly ambitious young Dr. Armstrong belittles his colleague Peter Mark Roget's penchant for organizing information into meaningful word lists, ideas fly back and forth like the shuttlecocks throughout this provocative follow-up to Ms. Stevenson's earlier MTC play, The Memory of Water. Interestingly, it is the second play this season in which the first things audiences see as they take their seats is a replica of a large, well-known painting. The paintings are quite different in mood and the only thing that Contact (our review) and An Experiment With an Air Pump have in common is that in both the paintings serve as a marvelously theatrical introduction, to the dances in the first instance and the dual but connected stories in the second.

Ms. Stephenson's drama takes its title as well as its inspiration from a 1767 painting by Joseph Wright whose work often depicted scientific or industrial subjects. In "An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump" the painter captured a scene demonstrating that life could not exist in a vacuum. Three men and four women (the exact makeup of the cast) are watching the oldest man pump air out of a glass globe (the air pump) into which a live bird has been placed.

When the lights dim and come up again, Linda Emond in her 1999 role as Ellen a research scientist in the field of genertics talks briefly about the painting and herself (W"hen I was thirteen other girls wanted to marry Mick Jagger. I wanted to be God"). Aided by two stagehands, she metamorphoses before out eyes into Susanna Fenwick wife of a distinguished physician' in the same Newcastle House 200 years earlier. Her transformation complete, the painting rolls off stage to be replaced by a living tableau with Susanna's husband Joseph (Daniel Gerroll) conducting the experiment with a pet bird. It should be noted immediately that Emond and Gerroll are superb in their cleverly juxtaposed parts.

The experimment complete, and the saved-in-the-knick-of-time bird restored to its cage, we get to know the rest of the playwright's re-imagined flesh and blood figures from the painting, each representing a different aspect of the period's zeitgeist .

Fenwick is passionate about progress which makes him sympathetic to the political change and turmoil brought on by industrialization. He feels he has nothing to fear from the crowd of rioters audibly present outside his Newcastle-on-Tyne home. After all, he treats the household servants as family members and greets the raucus mob's rants as the welcome "sound of things collapsing" (i.e. the rule of the royals) Yet Fenwick, like his 1999-2000 counterparts faces questionable ethical choices in the pursuit of scientific progress -- the bird fed into the air pump being a small remove from doing research on bodies supplied by grave robbers. Fenwick's young associates, Thomas Armstrong (Jason Butler Harner) and Peter Mark Roget (Christopher Duva), epitomize this conflict between single-minded scientific inquiry and an approach that factors art and humanity into the quest. Duva's endearing, word loving Roget brought to mind his equally fine portrayal of a hapless young writer caught up in the heady inner circle of the Moscow theatrical world in Black Snow (our review). Harner's second role as an ordinary modern man with little claim to the distinction Armstrong predicts for himself is another bit of sly double casting.

The three Fenwick ladies personify the evolution of women in society generally and the world of science specifically. Susanna Fenwick tries to jab her husband into giving her the attention she craves, with a tongue as sharp as the point of the only tool she's been educated to master -- a sewing needle. Her 1999 counterpart, has reversed roles, she being the progressive scientist (her ethical dilemmas now having to with genetically engineered life rather than existing bodies) and her husband the man who has toppled off the cutting edge. Susanna's older daughter Harriet (Ana Reeder -- another double cast character, also plays the modern counterpart of Armstrong), is an obviously strong-willed young woman. She strains at being told she can be a poet and put on home theatricals about scientific progress instead of being an active participant. Her complacently romantic younger sister Maria (played with comic panache by Clea Lewis) is rescued from following in her mother's footsteps with an amusing play on her eyes being opened to her absent fiance's fickleness when one of his letters indicates he can't even remember the color of her eyes .

As the collapse of Maria's epistolary romance supplies the evening's comic highlights, the fourth female character, a hunchbacked Scottish maid (played with amazing sensitivity by Seana Kofoed), provides an affecting secondary romance that also ends up being the strongest link between the then and now stories. I would be a spoiler if I went into more detail about this element of the play.

Air Pump's elegant staging its cornucopia of philosophic and social issues, and even the mystery linking the parallel stories will remind many theater goers of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. Indeed, as her earlier play, A Memory of Water was something of a homage to Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sister, so this much more ambitious enterprise might be regarded as a homage to Stoppard. Like Stoppard, Ms. Stephenson heaps our plate with so many ideas that we're apt to at times feel like witnesses to a debate and need a doggie bag to carry home for further thought and discussion. The annexation not only of a real painting but a historic character -- the doctor whose enduring fame rests on his lexograhic masterpiece, The Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases -- furthers this homage. Stephenson falls short of Stoppard's verbal wit and at times hampers her drama with too many of the elements of a debate; yet audiences who found Arcadia difficult to absorb, will find Air Pump much more accessible and involving.

Director Doug Hughes has done an outstanding job of juxtaposing the two stories. Besides the septet of strong actors, his ably abetted by first rate stagecraft. A curtain drawn and pulled back again to the accompaniement of sound designer David Van Tieghem's pulsing music effectively moves us between the two versions of John Lee Beatty's single set -- handsomely furnished with Sheraton furniture and all manner of scientific artifacts for the 1799 story and elegantly spare during the modern scenes. Brian MacDevitt's lighting and Catherine Zuber's costumes round out the production's visual satisfactions

On balance the play's pluses outweight its shortcomings. A caveat: Since Manhattan Theatre Club did not insert any background information posted in the lobby, be sure to arrive in time to check out the two backrounders posted on the middle level near the restrooms.

For our review of Shelagh Stephenson's first play, go here

by Shelagh Stephenson
Directed by Doug Hughes
With: Christopher Duva, Linda Emond, Daniel Gerroll, Jason Butler Harner, Seana Kofoed, Clea Lewis, Ann Reeder
Set Design: John Lee Beatty
Lighting Design: Brian MacDevitt
Costume Design: Catherine Zuber Original Music and Sound Design: David Van Tieghem
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
Manhattan Theatre Club, Stage I at City Center, 131 W. 55th St., (6/7 Avs), 581-1212 Website: Performances from 10/05/99; opening 10/31/99
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 10/30 performance

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