Fake is a very original work (directed, as well as written, by Mr. Simonson) displaying tremendous grace and polish. And with some fine dramatic flourishes of its own, and very impressive double-casting (in back-and-forth scenes set in 1914 and 1953), the show makes mysterious twins out of fact and faith, holding each up to the light of reason. Whether you choose to believe that the infamous "Piltdown Man" hoax actually came down just as Mr. Simonson says, it's still a lot of fun to see how he gets to his conclusion just the same. Suffice it to say that Britain's oppressive libel laws are a big part of the cover-up, squelching "the truth" from ever coming out, over a skull alleged to be that of the Missing Link. And, as a result of this dastardly plot, Charles Darwin (a god of the modern Scientific Method, like Sherlock Holmes himself) is toppled from an altar of rationalism in the British Museum; his trappings of reverence likewise swept away. It shocks the modern conscience.
Francis Guinan is amazing in his two roles, as Conan Doyle and decades later as a museum researcher. Kate Arrington, likewise, is delightfully bi-polar as a fierce young reporter in 1914, determined to uncover the skull's provenance, and also in 1953 as a dour Lithuanian after WWII. Coburn Goss achieves a complete metamorphosis as a vaguely shifty priest just before the first World War, and a garrulous American in the play's own future-time. Larry Yando and Alan Wilder are extremely entertaining and memorable, too, first banging the drum for the half-man/half-ape skull and, much later, turning on the light of truth. Only about halfway into it did I begin to realize that all of these actors play dual roles. I suppose that if I'd bothered to read the program beforehand, I wouldn't have been taken in at all, by any of them! But, as Holmes himself once said, "everything is obvious, my dear Watson, once it is explained to you." Perhaps if you take your spouse or a date, you'll try to keep them from finding out in advance, just for fun.
Mr. Simonson has obviously done a good deal of research on his subject matter, and the story plays out entertainingly, in the fashion of a Holmes and Watson mystery. Initial appearances are not what they seem, and motives and predispositions are either murky clues or titillating red herrings. And, though the play's 1953 romance seems a little vestigial to the overall thrust, it also allows for some very moving scenes for Mr. Guinan, especially, as both his characters teeter on the peak of their own achievements. If he never played King Lear, he could certainly look to this as a full expression of an old man's heart.
There are two little tiny slips into modern catch-phrases, which may break the spell for a moment (I failed to write down the first one, but the second was that a particular character was "all about the work") and should have been fixed long ago. And the numerous scene-changes seem to grow longer and longer as the two hour and fifteen minute show goes on, suggesting the need for even more stagehands. And Mr. Simonson's "solution" to the mystery of the Piltdown Man hoax leaves a faintly bitter, anti-scientific after-taste. But with all the tricks it has up its sleeve, the sumptuous acting, and the provocative questions and visual imagery, Fake shapes-up to be a terrific evening of theater.
Through November 8, 2009 at the Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 North Halsted Street. Parking is available in the adjacent garage, or take the Red Line to the North/Clybourn stop. For more information call (312) 335-1650 or visit them online at www.steppenwolf.org.
* Denotes member of Actors Equity
** Denotes Member of United Scenic Artists Local 829 of the IATSE