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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Michael Cristofer and Manoel Felciano
Photo by Doug Hamilton.

Are you tired of all the acrimonious debates between proponents of creationism and evolution? Are you looking for a tamer, friendlier treatment of the key components of evolution that won't tax your interpretive faculties? Then Peter Parnell's library-quiet history lesson at the Atlantic Theater Company, Trumpery, is for you.

Scrupulously avoiding both controversy and conflict, it never treats the conclusions of Charles Darwin as anything but an open-and-shut case. Some lip service is paid to evolution's being the silver knife that forever killed God - and Darwin's wife Emma and devout (and dying) daughter Annie are none too happy about it - but what really matters here isn't what the Theory of Evolution says, but who said it first.

Was it Darwin (Michael Cristofer), who's been sitting on his monumental discovery for some two decades, afraid to publish for fear of the religious implications? Or was it Alfred Russel Wallace (Manoel Felciano), the young upstart who independently devised the same idea, and wrote to Darwin about it - mysteriously, only a year or so before Darwin's masterwork, On the Origin of Species, was first published?

As Parnell presents it, the question is not likely to drive you to the edge of your seat. Darwin, facing pressure from Emma (Bianca Amato) and Annie (Paris Rose Yates), is a typical tortured hero whose choice about releasing his research is a foregone conclusion. When Wallace appears, he's so understated and amiable that you have little reason to fear he'll smash either Darwin's emotional or professional house of cards. With the first act devoted to Darwin fretting over whether to go public with his findings and the second devoted to him fretting over having gone public, Trumpery frequently resembles the fossil record's missing link between historical dramas and a therapist's couch.

A small gaggle of attendant characters, including the older (Bianca Amato) and younger (Paris Rose Yates) Darwin women, Darwin's supportive friend Joseph Dalton Hooker (Michael Countryman), a Bible-thumping paleontologist (Peter Maloney), and the token skeptic ripe for conversion Thomas Henry Huxley (Neal Huff) add bulk, if little substance, to the central issue. With so many characters agreeing about the underlying precepts of Darwin's work, and those that don't (such as Maloney's character, Owen) earning light ridicule, this is more mutual admiration society than play. David Esbjornson's production, placed amid the lush garden set of Santo Loquasto and robed in Jane Greenwood's reserved period finery, only blows more dust into atmosphere already as musty as it is genial.

The acting, like everything else, is handsome: The unfettered concern Cristofer brings to the world around him makes his Darwin a reassuringly humanistic figure caught in an uncomfortable situation, Felciano's sweet manner nicely contrasts with Wallace's dragon-master preconceptions, and Huff derives some droll comedy from Huxley's high-speed head turning. But no one reveals any surprising facets in the people we already know, or gives us reason to believe any are to be found in those we don't. The story we've never heard is more important to Parnell than actually telling a story in the here and now.

It provides an interesting comparison with another just-opened non-mystery mystery play, Aaron Sorkin's The Farnsworth Invention: Two adversaries in pursuit of the same vision (in that case, tele) must struggle to inform us of their accomplishments through the path of most insistence. If Parnell's is the better, smarter play, it's weaker theatre - Sorkin strives to make his enlightenment entertaining, while Parnell trusts that enlightenment itself should be enough. It's not. That Parnell never convinces us this is a story dying to be told suggests that his dramatic design was perhaps too intelligent for Trumpery's own good.

Through December 30
Atlantic Theater Company at The Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral