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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

F. Murray Abraham
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Walking into the Classic Stage Company these days is a lot like drifting through space. Upon entering the theater you'll immediately see giant, spherical asteroids either floating about, resting on the floor, or even lodged in a wall. There's a strong circular theme to both the playing platform and the few additional set elements you see. (Is that a projection screen or a porthole-style window upstage?) As if that's not enough, the area around the stage is laid with black carpeting so thick your feet practically spring back against gravity after they press into it. Such immersion may be overkill on the part of director Brian Kulick and scenic designer Adrianne Lobel, but it leaves you with no question as to what you're seeing, where you are, and why it all behaves as it does at CSC's new production of Galileo.

That this is all for a Bertolt Brecht play explains these choices: Kulick wants to ensure you remember up front that planets are not attached to crystal spheres surrounding the Earth, and that our planet isn't at the center of anything. You know, just in case you still had the same doubts that the early 17th-century Italians did when they persecuted the titular scientist for daring to say—and, even more shockingly, daring to prove—that heliocentrism was the galaxy's presiding order. This represents, then, Kulick's attempt at Brecht's alienation concept, trying to distance you from too much involvement in the question of whether Galileo will really give in or whether mathematics, logic, reason, and experimentation will win out in the end. (I trust it's not too much of a spoiler to point out that it's both.)

Kulick needn't have gone so far with these elements, considering how little he elaborated on most of the others. Using the fine translation of actor Charles Laughton (who also starred in the work's 1947 Broadway premiere), Kulick's straightforwardly staged and acted mounting goes through the motions (stage directions read aloud! a masque injected in the middle of the action for no discernible reason!) while making no attempt to tie them to a greater concept. This doesn't hurt the play much, but it also doesn't deliver a transcendent experience; it's handsomely, if unexceptionally, appointed (the costume designer is Oana Botez-Ban, the lighting designer Justin Townsend), with the most remarkable feature being the actor revolving at the middle of it all, F. Murray Abraham.

Abraham is low-key, too, by the way. He says Galileo's lines about the cosmos and God's role in it (or lack thereof) simply and declaratively, as if he, like the astronomer-mathematician-physicist he's playing, believes that everything can, will, and should speak for itself. Any fireworks to be found in his performance exist only in the text, which sets up the central conundrum—to recant or not to recant—then leaves you to wonder whether Galileo's ultimate solution was cowardly or cunning. But Abraham betrays no commenting on this question, and proceeds through the first scene just as he does his last (set some 33 years later): as the schoolteacher for whom pursuit of the truth, regardless of whether it enraptures anyone else along the way, is its own reward. This is a perfectly appropriate and, for the text, satisfying approach.

None of the other performers is as committed to this ideal, so everything that orbits Galileo is rather less compelling. The closest is Robert Dorfman, who plays the sympathetic cardinal Barberini (who's also destined to become Pope Urban VIII) and delivers a nicely lackadaisical take on the character that underscores the uneasy compromises science and religion find with each other. The others either don't find a consistent style that works throughout, as is the case with Jon DeVries, muddled and off-balance as Galileo's assistant Federzoni; or choose a style that's too limiting for all their characters have to achieve (true mostly of the various juveniles: Andy Phelan as Galileo's servant Andrea, Amanda Quaid as his daughter, and Nick Westrate as her scheming lothario Ludovico). Others in the cast, which include Steven Rattazzi, Steven Skybell, and Aaron Himelstein, make little concrete impression at all.

Triple, quadruple, and quintuple casting doesn't help; it's frequently difficult to pinpoint each actor in the role of the moment. That Kulick's nonchalant staging also is as much about traffic management as communicating the precepts of the story, and is somewhat messy even at that, compounds this problem and dilutes many moments that should disquiet. This isn't particularly a big play to begin with, but ideally it comes across larger and, yes, more universal than Kulick lets it here.

As a result, its impact is limited to a staid, stuffy, and predictable point about scientific inquiry that most in the audience already accept; deeper, more epic echoes, more in tune with the occasion of the Age of Reason the characters recognize as struggling to life, would improve matters. Nonetheless, Galileo doesn't need to be big to do its basic job, and this small-to-medium-size version doesn't disappoint on the basic levels it operates. It's the traditional convincing argument, not always convincingly presented, but effective because the facts ultimately win out. One suspects that were Galileo and Brecht still around, they'd grant at least their grudging approval.

Through March 18
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street
2 hours 15 minutes with one intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ovation Tix

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