EmptyAtlantic Theater Company
Through Dec. 30
The ongoing debate about whether to teach evolution and/or creationism in U.S. schools makes the world premiere of "Trumpery" -- Peter Parnell's biographical drama about Charles Darwin -- of topical interest. But despite a genuinely touching lead performance from Michael Cristofer, the play has the air of an academic lesson.
Set in England in 1858 in the garden of Darwin's home -- Santo Loquasto's huge set, with its wicker furniture and arching branches, looks more fit for "Night of the Iguana" -- "Trumpery" finds the scientist at a crisis in his career. He has conceived the theory of natural selection but has not yet published his discovery, and another scientist, Alfred Wallace (Manoel Felciano), has reached the same conclusion and apparently is ready to tell the world.
Despite suffering pangs of shame and guilt, Darwin exercises survival of the fittest and bests Wallace, who turns out, in this version anyway, to be extraordinarily good-humored and generous. Darwin's bit of trumpery -- or trickery -- is, in a sense, wasted.
A sluggish Act 1 introduces the situation and the people in Darwin's life, including the clever, aggressive biologist Thomas Huxley (well-played by Neal Huff, of HBO's "The Wire"); Darwin's loving wife, Emma (the excellent Bianca Amato); and his daughter Annie (Paris Rose Yates), who is dying. And of course there is Darwin, a neurotic genius prone to intense anxiety and public bouts of vomiting.
With exposition behind him, Parnell writes a more vibrant Act 2, and director David Esbjornson smartly elicits as much amusement and humanity as possible from the script. Darwin emerges finally as a sympathetic, if not completely likable, being. Cristofer ("The Shadow Box") plays him as a kind of rough-hewn, absent-minded individual, somebody who wants to win but also is happy puttering with the earthworms in his garden, a man who prizes intellect above everything but also possesses reserves of love and humor.
This affecting performance carries the production, though Cristofer is ably supported by a strong cast that makes the most of Parnell's one-dimensional characters. There is the sense that, in the Darwin-Wallace competition, Parnell encountered a large and complex story but oversimplified it when translating the conflict to the stage.
Atlantic Theater Company
Playwright: Peter Parnell
Director: David Esbjornson
Set designer: Santo Loquasto
Costume designer: Jane Greenwood
Lighting designer: James F. Ingalls
Sound designer: Obadiah Eaves
Charles Darwin: Michael Cristofer
George: Jack Tartaglia
Emma: Bianca Amato
Vicar/Protestor: Timothy Deenihan
Hooker: Michael Countryman
Annie/Girl: Paris Rose Yates
Huxley: Neal Huff
Owen/Williams: Peter Maloney
Alfred Wallace: Manoel Felciano