nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 8, 2007
My favorite moment in Trumpery comes in the middle of Act One, when Charles Darwin explicates, for the very first time, just how his theories of evolution and natural selection work. He puts forth the idea gradually, gently; and as he speaks, we watch the enormity of what he is saying dawn on Thomas Henry Huxley, a young biologist and journalist (played masterfully by Neal Huff). Here is carefully reasoned proof that God did not create man, at least not from whole cloth; here, in other words, is a refutation of more than two thousand years of the collective wisdom and collective consciousness of Western civilization. This revolution in thought is evident on Huff's open face, and for an instant, we have a sense of what it must have been like to have everything you were taught to believe challenged by hard evidence in just a few minutes' time.
Kirk Bromley's excellent but unheralded On the Origin of Darwin covers this terrain even more probingly; playwright Peter Parnell, with his new work Trumpery, is really more interested in Darwin's relationship with another historical figure, the lesser-known scientist Alfred Russel Wallace. The play tells us that Wallace developed a short but generally equivalent formulation of Darwin's theories more or less concurrently, and it postulates that Darwin felt significant guilt in letting his friends (Huxley among them) maneuver on his behalf so that the primary credit for evolution accrued to Darwin.
Wallace, portrayed here by Manoel Felciano as a charming and eccentric naif, is an interesting character; but the conflict between him and Darwin is pretty much a non-starter and Parnell's choice to put it center stage weakens the play. And the plot twist that Wallace sort-of helps engineer—he's a big believer in Spiritualism, and he urges Charles to attend a seance organized by Mrs. Darwin, who has been grieving for years following their daughter's death—really damages the piece. The first part of Trumpery pits Darwin's discoveries against the Church and organized religion; the shift toward the paranormal feels jarring and insignificant after the weightier debates of Act One.
Parnell includes a historical note in the program that helpfully sorts out fact from authorial license (though he perhaps assumes too much knowledge on the part of his audience: do most people know, off the top of their heads, who Darwin's associates Hooker, Lyell, or Owen are?) The play itself is much more accessible, and when it stays focused on the meat of Darwin's discoveries, is fascinating and thought-provoking.
The fine work of Huff and Felciano is matched by Peter Maloney, who plays the conservative paleontologist Robert Owen in Act One and is equally effective as an American spiritualist in Act Two; and also by Michael Countryman as Darwin's close friend, Joseph Hooker. But Michael Cristofer feels at least ten years too old to be convincing as Darwin, who is not even 50 at the play's start; Cristofer's performance is at once sketchy and overwrought, failing to show us more than a glimmer of the remarkable genius, resilience, and courage that surely must have characterized this man.
The production at the Atlantic Theatre is directed by David Esbjornson in generally unobtrusive fashion. But Santo Loquasto's typically overdone set, here taking in a large barren garden that covers about a third of the playing area without contributing much to the show thematically, is problematic.