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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
It was to catch up with the re-opened shows that I ended up with a double bill last Saturday. I knew that both the Off-Broadway Trumpery and The Farnsworth Invention on Broadway fit into Curtainup's science and technology page but didn't realize just how much both these world premieres have in common.
The Farnsworth Invention (review), my evening gig, is about the invention of television, Peter Parnell's Trumpery is about Darwin's theory of evolution. Two very different discoveries. Two earth shakingly important ideas. Both seeded controversies involving the issue of credit and this is an issue that obviously intrigued both Aaron Sorkin and Peter Parnell.
Trumpery takes us back to 1858 and Charles Darwin's country home, Down House. It's been twenty years since Darwin formulated his theory on natural selection but he's still dawdling over putting it all into the book eagerly awaited by his colleagues, among them botanist Joseph Hooker (Michael Countryman) and the critic and naturalist Thomas Huxley (Neal Huff). Darwin's procrastination about publishing The Origin of the Species is exacerbated by family and spiritual problems —the fatal illness of his beloved daughter Annie (Paris Rose Yates) and his loss of faith just when his devout wife Emma (Bianca Amato) feels it's most needed.
Darwin's procrastination takes a critical turn with the arrival of a letter and enclosure from an unknown young explorer named Wallace (Manoel Felciano) that indicates that he's come up with the exact same theory as Darwin. Now, I'm not spoiling anything when I tell you that Darwin will end up the man chiefly associated with the theory. After all, it's Darwin who's become a household name and eponym (Darwinism and darwinian). As a quick Google search of Darwin-Wallace will show, Wallace is hardly unknown and unacknowledged. However, he is definitely the number two name when it comes to any talk on the subject of Natural Selection. That leaves Mr. Parnell to dramatize just what Darwin did about Wallace, and how Wallace reacted.
I wish I could report that this makes for gripping theater or that you're going to brush up on a lot of stuff about evolution that you remember only vaguely from high school science. Unfortunately, despite director David Esbjornson's efforts to transform this troubling episode in Darwin's life into a vivid drama, the books cited in Parnell's program notes are probably more absorbing than this talky play.
That's not to say that Trumpery is without merit. It's an intelligent, handsomely produced play that smartly ties together Darwin's guilt, not only about the ethics of protecting his first dibs as evolutionary theorist, but the likelihood that his theory would rob good Christians of their faith.
Esbjornson's direction suits the play's low key flavor and draws some fine performances from his cast. Michael Christopher conveys all the nuances of Darwin's unease with his family situation and the plan he and his colleagues work out to give Wallace the credit he deserves without jeopardizing Darwin's top gun status. (They introduced the dual theory authorship at a little publicized scientific meeting, giving Darwin time to finish the book that nailed down his place in history).
Neal Huff is lively and amusing as Huxley. Both his and Michael Countryman's performances are as sturdy as the support their characters give to Darwin. But the letters that in fact were the means by which these men discussed the Wallace situation aren't vastly more effective as face to face stage scenes which often seem weighed down by Parnell's extensive research.
The production values are quite stunning. Santo Loquasto's set — a solarium that extends to a rocky garden at the foot of the stage and has a roof made of tree branches— and Obediah Eaves' sound design beautifully evoke Darwin's passion for nature.
The man who causes the problem of credit turns out not to be a problem at all which makes the plot conflict something of a much ado about nothing twist. However, Manoel Feliciano is excellent as the likeable and generous of spirit Wallace and there's a scene between the two men near the end of the second act that makes for a pleasingly happy moral ending. This bit of fictionalized history makes a case for exercising literary license. On the other hand, a seance (conducted by the always excellent Peter Maloney, who earlier appeared as a God-fearing, anti-evolution colleague) muddies the factual waters a bit too much. While Darwin did once attend a seance, it was Wallace who became hooked on this sort of spiritual adventure which, more than arguments about credit, caused a split between the men. Since that seance does provide a real edge-of-the-seat moment, I probably quibble unfairly, especially since even when it doesn't sizzle, Trumpery is expertly performed and always gorgeous to look at.
Science and technology have inspired quite a few playwrights. For links and synopses of some we've covered go here.
Try onlineseats.com for great seats to
The Little Mermaid
Shrek The Musical
The Playbill Broadway YearBook
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide