AISLE SAY New York
Directed by David Esbjornson
Starring Michael Cristofer
Atlantic Theatre Co. / 336 West 20th Street / (212) 239-6200
Reviewed by Richard Gleaves
When Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, he provided humankind with both the foundation of biology and a logical explanation for the diversity of life. It could be said that he single-handedly made atheism tenable as an intellectual position.
From our modern perspective we may forget how daring his theory was, and how dangerous. We live in a post-Darwin age where creationists are considered anti-science and “fringe” by the mainstream—an age in which faith has accommodated the truths discovered by Darwin only by accepting and re-interpreting them. Our much-debated theories of “Intelligent design,” for example, attempt to have evolution and God; to have natural selection and a supernatural selector. In Darwin's time, that sort of thing was unnecessary. There was no push and pull of evidence and faith. Only God was debated—in fact, only God was allowed.
So a play on the subject of Darwin which focuses on his fears, on his hesitations and on his eventual decision to publish is an excellent idea. There is drama here—the sense of a man risking public scorn for scientific truth. There are possibilities for rich conflict in the fact that his own wife continued to believe the scriptures- even as Darwin lost his own faith. The couple was divided by the tragic loss of a child. Imagine: Darwin's wife seeking consolation in beliefs that her husband had abandoned, accusing him of destroying her faith when she most needed it, adding to his burden of being alone against the entire world. An interesting subject for drama.
But this is not that play.
Trumpery by Peter Parnell certainly includes these situations, but unfortunately reduces them to a mere sideshow. The publication of The Origin of Species is an offstage action taken by minor characters that are otherwise unnecessary to the story. The strained relationship of Darwin and his wife is a subplot that never comes to a satisfying resolution. A religious scientist vows in Act One to destroy Darwin's career and is never heard from again. The main story of Trumpery focuses instead on a few little known facts: that a man named Alfred Russel Wallace independently discovered the theory of natural selection, that he informed Darwin of his discovery, and that Darwin feared losing his claim on the idea and so allowed friends to rush his discovery to publication. Years after the fact, an impending visit from Wallace causes Darwin to squirm with guilt and obsess about what explanation to give the man. By the climax, he has reached an understanding with Wallace.
The difficulty with this focus is that Darwin did nothing wrong- he didn't steal his rivals idea, and he actually has nothing to atone for. Darwin knows this, his friends know this, and WE know this. So there is nothing to worry about. The main thrust of the drama is a non-issue. Perhaps the dramatic problem that undermines the play is that we see the true circumstances of Darwin's publication early in Act One, and so in Act Two we are not puzzling out the truth with Wallace but simply waiting for what we already know to be revealed again.
This is not to say that the journey is not interesting, well-written, well researched. The performances in this production are mostly top-drawer. Michael Cristofer makes an affable Darwin and Bianca Amato is period-perfect as his wife. Manoel Felciano is an attractive Wallace though the slightly off-kilter tone of his characterization does add an extra distance. The direction by David Esbjornson is brisk and the physical production is attractive, particularly the sound design by Obadiah Eaves.
Ultimately, I cannot stress enough that writer Peter Parnell has woven some lovely tapestries of concepts and created a play of ideas that is interesting and engaging. But the engine which must drive the story is not yet there.
Perhaps with clever revision and, yes, intelligent design.