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A CurtainUp Review
A successful hoax for 40 years, the "Piltdown Man" was a skull created from a medieval human cranium and an orangutan jaw that fooled the leading scientists of its era. Better, Englishmen were flattered that a giant-brained hominid had visited Sussex millennia before. The fabulous fabrication provides a loose focus for Eric Simonson's discursive drama about deception—-sexual and scientific— and faith —religious and scientific.
Being human means being constantly torn between the desire for certainty and a passion for mystery. The Piltdown furor exploited both, drawing into its contention such notables as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the French "Christian evolutionist" Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, London Natural History Museum president Arthur Woodward, and Charles Dawson, the notorious faker and thief generally considered the perpetrator of the Piltdown fraud. Simonson assembles them in 1914 and, in the tradition of Tom Stoppard, contrasts their concerns and crises with parallel characters in 1953, when the imposture was exposed.
Unfortunately, Simonson doesn't know what to do after he connects them through fruitless exposition. The scattershot story discusses without dramatizing ill-sorted themes of emotional truth versus scientific skepticism. The most interesting question — how to reconcile Conan Doyle's empirical-minded doubts about the skull with his equal belief in the spirit world — is, unfortunately, answered in the worst way, by fingering, for purely thematic convenience, the wrong hoaxer. (So a play about one lie explains it with another fabrication.)
Despite persuasive performances (especially Kate Arrington as an iconoclast in two eras), this pot never comes to a boil. But Larry Yando makes what he can of the far too limited role of the rogue Dawson, considering that his lifelong penchant for trickery and chicanery deserves a drama of its own.