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Jerome Bixby's The Man from Earth
The Adobe Theater


Jim Cady, David Bommarito and Matthew van Wettering
This play raises an interesting point: If it's a mystery how life developed in the first place, is it not also a mystery why every living thing must get old and die? Since many of the cells in our bodies turn over into new cells, why can't a body simply keep replenishing itself indefinitely?

That's the premise underlying this play with an odd title, Jerome Bixby's The Man from Earth, by Richard Schenkman. I had not previously heard of Jerome Bixby, but he was a science fiction writer of some note because of a few "Twilight Zone" and "Star Trek" episodes. He wrote a screenplay called The Man from Earth just before he died in 1998. It was filmed by director Richard Schenkman on a tiny budget in 2007 and given the current title, probably to capitalize on the cachet of Bixby's name in the sci-fi world and to distinguish it from the better known The Man Who Fell to Earth. The movie went nowhere commercially.

Schenkman then adapted it into this play, which was a good idea, since there's nothing at all cinematic about it—unless you consider My Dinner with André to be cinematic. It's a parlor piece, all the action taking place in the living room of John Oldman (note the last name), a college professor who has abruptly resigned and is in the process of moving out to even he doesn't know where.

Some of his academic colleagues drop in for a surprise going-away party. There's an anthropologist, whose function is to be a believer in Oldman's story (which I am not giving away, just dropping hints) and to explain things to the audience; an archeologist, who is the non-believer and a macho hothead (you know this because he rides a motorcycle and is apparently shagging one of his students, who shows up at the party with him); and a biologist, who gives us the physiological basis for Oldman's existence, and who provides some comic relief. There's also an art historian, whose function is to authenticate a Van Gogh painting of Oldman and to be the Christian fundamentalist, and a psychologist, who is here to be the distraught skeptic and to provide the contrived ending.

These people are not characters, they're spokespersons for various points of view. What this show is mainly about is how well-educated Jerome Bixby was. He throws in bits and pieces of archeology, anthropology, some Aristotelian metaphysics (the Prime Mover and infinite regress), the funeral march movement from Beethoven's Seventh (which is premonitory or ironic, or both), and a fair amount of Joseph Campbell-y stuff about the development of religions vis-a-vis previous mythologies. I have to admit that I found it pretty interesting.

It's talky, a lot of the dialogue is pretty clunky, and it starts out kind of slow, but it eventually won me over. Except for the last scene, which is supposed to be the emotional climax, but which left me cold. It's a classic "Twilight Zone" ending. I guess if you're very sharp, you can see it coming, but I didn't.

Ned Record, the director, tries to keep things moving in this essentially static play, and does a good job of it. One miscalculation is the "comic" interlude when the moving van person comes to get the furniture, and it turns out that she can't even move a chair. A few people in the audience laughed. And the ending is overplayed, I think.

The acting is more than competent throughout. Considering some of the dialogue these actors have to recite, they put it across quite well. Matthew van Wettering is one of my favorite actors in Albuquerque, and he does a typically good job here, but he's a little too subdued sometimes as John Oldman, and a little too overwrought at the end. I think it would have been a good choice to give him a faint unplaceable accent, rather than have him sound 100% American. One rarely can learn a new language as an adult without some vestige of their native language persisting.

Jim Cady is suitably troubled as the psychologist, Heather Lovick-Tolley is emotional as the Christian literalist, Norm Fletcher is convincing as the angry archeologist, David Bommarito is funny and lively as the biologist, and Arthur Alpert is lovably avuncular as the anthropologist. Adrienne Cox as the student has little to do, but does it well. And Rachel Haskett is fine in the remarkably underwritten role of Oldman's current girlfriend.

If you're looking for action, a plot, or character development, this is not the play for you. If you believe the Bible literally, this is not the play for you. But if you like intellectual discussions and a touch of the supernatural, I would recommend it.

Jerome Bixby's The Man from Earth by Richard Schenkman, directed by Ned Record, is being performed at the Adobe Theater in Albuquerque through June 8, 2014, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 2:00. This is a one-act, about 90 minutes, and there is a discussion with the cast after every performance. For more information see the Adobe Theater website, adobetheater.org


Photo: Daryl Streeter

--Dean Yannias



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