Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5

Scientific naturalists meet dreary theatrical naturalism in Peter Parnell’s creaky new play about the one-sided rivalry between Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Fretful, white-haired Darwin (Michael Cristofer) receives a letter from the peripatetic Wallace (Manoel Felciano), who is out trolling Indonesia with a butterfly net; it innocently apprises him of Wallace’s new pet theory—a little something called natural selection. Darwin—who’s been quietly laboring over the same explosive notion for decades and cultivating allies like Hooker (Michael Countryman) and Huxley (Neal Huff)—panics and rushes to finish the world-changing Origin of Species.

That much is history. What Parnell adds to the stew is some lukewarm stock—a disapproving colleague (Peter Maloney), a prim, neglected wife (Bianca Amato), a plaintively dying child (Paris Rose Yates)—and supposedly nourishing veggies, in the form of stale debates over evolution versus creation. (Typical retort: “Selected? Naturally? Ridiculous!”)

The meat is ostensibly served with the second-act arrival of Wallace, who tramps in meekly in muddy boots and a country hat and mildly shocks the company with socialist and spiritualist sympathies. We glimpse the seeds of Parnell’s inspiration here, particularly in a strikingly tender final scene between these two unwitting 19th-century giants. Still, they realize their kinship and complementarity a little too neatly. For a play about the battle for survival, Trumpery is tame to the point of sluggishness. David Esbjornson’s direction is smooth and the cast is solid, but the best and most telling thing about the production is Santo Loquasto’s set: It suggests a ship that has run aground and is sprouting a huge, barren tree.

Rob Kendt

Atlantic Theater Company. By Peter Parnell. Dir. David Esbjornson. With ensemble cast. 2hrs. One intermission.