Stuffed Happens

A post-strike round-up: four Broadway openings, plus a little Off-Broadway Darwinism

I know this is a terrible thing to say, but during the 19 days that Broadway was shut down by a labor dispute, I didn't miss it at all. The Off-Broadway and Off-Off schedules were, if anything, more hectic than usual, so theater as such never seemed to be on the decline. I was sorry for the people out of work, and for the people in all the ancillary trades losing business at the height of the tourist season, but the slackening made Times Square a little more traversable, and conversation in its relatively deserted restaurants a little more audible—so while the restaurateurs wept into their Bushmill's, I'm afraid I snickered, a little guiltily, up my sleeve.

The disputatious gaggle of realtors and money-hungry riffraff who grandly call themselves the League of American Theatres and Producers had, to my mind, brought the work stoppage on themselves. They had thought, in the manner of capitalists everywhere these days, that it was all about money, and consequently that they, as the check-signers, should be entitled to make all the rules; behind their pose of negotiating willingly with Local 1 lay an ill-concealed desire to do away with union stagehands, and if possible with unions, altogether. Unfortunately for them, the stagehands understood enough about theatrics to read the league's subtext accurately, and so held their ground until the producers dropped their lunatic dream of running Broadway like Wal-Mart and actual negotiations could occur, after which a settlement was promptly reached and everybody went back to work.

Ironically, given that the producers' overall attitude may have made the strike inevitable, its consequences probably fell hardest on the few among them who, anomalously and against the current tide, genuinely believe that drama has a place on Broadway. Five of the six Broadway openings postponed because of the strike were "legit" plays; three of them, dropped instantly into the already overbooked week when performances resumed, are the reason this review is so long. That'll teach me not to snicker up my sleeve.

The evolution begins at home: Peter Parnell's Trumpery at the Atlantic
Joan Marcus
The evolution begins at home: Peter Parnell's Trumpery at the Atlantic

The week's principal Off-Broadway exhibit, Peter Parnell's Trumpery (Atlantic Theater, 336 West 20th Street, 212-279-4200) makes a matched pair, structurally speaking, with Aaron Sorkin's on-Broadway The Farnsworth Invention (Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street, 212-239-6200). Each deals with one of the great influences that have shaped our time, but touches only peripherally on its devastating effects; in both, the main issue is who got the idea first. Both authors show a little discomfort with this quintessentially American fetishizing of originality, and both plays end with uneasy reconciliations—the one in Sorkin's play being, like much else in its second act, nakedly unhistorical. What the fuss over assigning credit obscures, in each case, is the deeper conflict about the relative value and consequences of the idea that the originator set loose on earth. Brecht, who dealt with a similar theme more effectively in Galileo, would have known better.

Parnell, who goes far deeper into his subject than Sorkin, gets at least some flavor of authenticity and some sense of the Brechtian depths inherent in his topic. His twin competitors are Charles Darwin (Michael Cristofer) and the naturalist-explorer Alfred Russel Wallace (Manoel Felciano), who evolved the theory of natural selection while Darwin was struggling to embody it in The Origin of Species. Set at Darwin's home, where supportive colleagues push him to publish before Wallace gets there first, the play makes a sly running comparison between scientists' struggle for priority and the animalistic survival struggle embodied in Darwin's theory. Parnell frames this action in a familial version of the big battle, still going on today, between believers in Christianity and evolution: Darwin's refusal to acknowledge a spiritual cause behind his scientifically observed findings gets locked in mortal combat with his wife's grief over their dying daughter.

In David Esbjornson's production, powered by beautifully measured yet passionate performances from Cristofer and Felciano, Parnell makes this personal side of the play riveting, though showing it to us only through a thicket of scientific data and Victorian scientists' trade gossip. Every now and then, Trumpery stalls in lecture mode, but the author and his lead actors always have either an emotional blast or a well-turned epigram ready to rev it up again. I could wish Parnell had made his drama's major focus the door that Darwin opened onto all the goods and evils of modern thought, but a clear outline of the doorway looms over the story he does tell. Two ever-reliable actors, Michael Countryman and Neal Huff, as Darwin's teammates Hooker and Huxley, add distinctive colors to the event, but it's the big scenes for Cristofer and Felciano that give it grip.

Sorkin's play, also fueled by grief over a dying child, keeps its grip by data-smacking you. Every half-minute or so, somebody in Des McAnuff's ultra-speedy, hyper-choreographed production (movement by Lisa Shriver) gets repositioned downstage to throw a new fact, or half-fact, at you. Sorkin's combatants are Philo T. Farnsworth (Jimmi Simpson), the intermittently alcoholic, intermittently devout Mormon farm boy who invented television, and David Sarnoff (Hank Azaria), who as head of RCA needed to prove that he didn't. In 1939, well before television became the market-boom phenomenon that ultimately destroyed human civility, RCA lost this patent fight, but you'd never know that from Sorkin's drama, which turns Farns-worth into an aw-shucks folk hero facing down the corporate sharks—though it carefully dodges possible imputations of anti-Semitism by showing Sarnoff's own rise to the top as a struggle, analogous to Farnsworth's, against entrenched bigotry.

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