Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 12, 2007
Inherit the Wind by Jeremone Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Directed by Doug Hughes. Set and costume design by Santo Loquasto. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Original music and sound design by David Van Tieghem. Hair and wig design by Paul Huntley. Cast: Christopher Plummer, Brian Dennehy. Also Starring Byron Jennings. Terry Beaver, Anne Bowles, Steve Brady, Bill Buell, Bill Christ, Carson Church, Conor Donovan, Lanny Flaherty, Kit Flanagan, Beth Fowler, Sherman Howard, Katie Klaus, Maggie Lacey, Jordan Lage, Mary Kate Law, Philip LeStrange, Kevin C. Loomis, David M. Lutken, Charlotte Maier, Matthew Nardozzi, Randall Newsome, Jay Patterson, Pippa Pearthree, Scott Sowers, Amanda Sprecher, Erik Steele, Jeff Steitzer, Henry Stram, Benjamin Walker, Andrew Weems, and Denis O'Hare.
Its triumph has included the famous 1960 film version starring Spencer Tracy and Fredric March, three television adaptations, and countless revivals at all levels of professionalism. However, if Charles Darwin could examine a dozen different finches on the Galapagos Islands and form the foundation of a theory that would lead us to conclude that man descended from primates, even he'd be stymied trying to explain how a community theatre production of Inherit the Wind could end up on Broadway, at the Lyceum.
All the signs are there: The headliners, two of the town's most popular and well-regarded men. The stalwart who always plays some variation of the character he perfected as his high school's class clown 20 years ago. The star director, whose knack for controlling huge crowd scenes on a tiny stage is routinely mistaken for depth. A local gospel group, engaged to liven up the pre-show festivities. Seating the audience onstage, allowing excited theatregoers to feel like they're a part of the action.
In certain locales, choices like these help ensure that if an audience won't be moved or enlightened, they'll at least be swept away. And if the acting and staging choices fade away into the background, so what? It's probably all for the best. But on Broadway, where excellence has a centuries-old history and a superlative, uncompromising revival of the earlier Journey's End is playing scarcely a block away, there's something discomfiting and distasteful about seeing the same tactics employed to even lesser ends.
The idea here is that the ideological struggle the play depicts, between rabidly religious prosecutor Matthew Harrison Brady (Brian Dennehy) and agnostic defense attorney Henry Drummond (Christopher Plummer), remains relevant, so not much fussing is required to sell the play to 2007 audiences. But the real thrill of the debate has always come from witnessing the catastrophic collision of irresistible force and immovable object, old ways and new vying for supremacy in the sweltering courtroom of a devout small town. Though the play was styled as a criticism of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the sad rampage of Senator Joseph McCarthy, Lawrence and Lee still realized the true drama can only come from these two titans being on equal footing until the last possible second.
For this production, director Doug Hughes has opted for the more obvious, and considerably less effective, approach: weighing the show so much in favor of Drummond that everything else feels like a surreal vaudeville sketch. From the gospel quartet that opens the show in overly amplified Southern style to a big, bland jury box of a set and costumes resembling hand-me-downs from a university production of Our Town (Santo Loquasto designed both), it's clear you're not supposed to take the townsfolk seriously. And that transforms the play into a listless, anti-religion rant, far less interesting than the brutal duel-to-the-death of ideas the play can be at its best.
This is especially odd coming from Hughes, who with John Patrick Shanley's Doubt a few seasons ago demonstrated a real knack for eliciting multiple layers of ambiguity from a worthy text. Here, though, it seems as if he couldn't be bothered either in terms of the staging, which turns distancing and nonrealistic whenever it leaves the courtroom, or his work with the performers.
Only Plummer rescues the evening from its Amateur Night on West 45th Street leanings, creating a Drummond level-headed enough to see how his actions will win his case and cause the downfall of man he might disagree with, but still nonetheless respects. Following the trial, when Drummond is faced with the aftermath of his choices, Plummer reveals a few moving moments of recognition of the worlds he's simultaneously helped destroy and create. This glimpse of humanity is key to understanding how differing opinions can coexist, but it's a rarity in this production.
More in tune with the overall tone is Denis O'Hare. His character, E.K. Hornbeck (based on H.L. Mencken), is the Baltimore critic who's come to act as ringleader for the trial's media circus. But rather than finding in Hornbeck a devious sense of atheistic duty with perhaps just a tinge of muckraking fire, O'Hare makes him the same impishly tormenting pest he's played in his last six New York shows. While his gnatty neuroticism was well-suited to Take Me Out's Mason Marzac (for which O'Hare received a Tony Award) or Sweet Charity's Oscar Lindquist, it feels here like a dangerously safe way to create the ultimate foil for both Brady and Drummond.
In fact, in the way Hornbeck screeches out words and hops about the stage brandishing apples like annoying weapons, he seems determined to prove all by himself that humans did indeed evolve from monkeys. It's an intriguing, if utterly unwatchable, interpretation, the kind you expect from actors and directors who settle for cheap laughs when they can't unearth truth. O'Hare never finds any in Hornbeck, but in this Inherit the Wind he's in disappointingly good company.