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Armando Riesco, Keira Naughton, Josh Hamilton,
Ione Skye, and Peter Dinklage in Evolution
(Photo: J. Merrill)
Plays about Hollywood have changed. They used to be biting satires of the movie industry; now, they're satiric swipes at television. Case in point: Evolution by Jonathan Marc Sherman. Fortunately, Sherman is an unusually talented writer with a sweeping sense of the fundamental absurdity of what passes for humankind, so he simply cannot limit his barbs to the boob tube. In the blistering attack on modern man (and woman) that is presently playing downstairs at 45 Bleecker, he skewers everything from academia to pop culture. And his biggest target is probably himself -- or, at least, his fictional stand-in, played by the estimable Josh Hamilton.

Sherman, the author of such plays as Women and Wallace and Sophistry, is adept at turning intellectual concepts into theater. Despite the fact that Evolution doesn't have much of a dramatic arc, he and his director Lizzie Gottlieb dazzle the audience with their combination of scintillating language and inventive stagecraft. Sherman begins with a free-spirited female college student named Hope (Keira Naughton) who brings her Ph.D.-bound boyfriend Henry (Hamilton) back home to Los Angeles to meet her phone-sex-obsessed father (Peter Block) and darkly brilliant brother (Armando Riesco).

Henry is so steeped in academia that he has no knowledge of popular culture; Hope's brother, Ernie, has the inspired idea to use this flaw of Henry's as the concept for a TV sitcom. There is a hint of the Peter Sellers movie Being There in Henry's innocence, but the character in that famous satire was a true man-child, whereas Henry is really a fool. He's writing his thesis about Charles Darwin (just one of the many literal and metaphorical references to the show's title) but, in order to distinguish it from the works of others, he's insisting upon writing his opus without using the letter "E" anywhere in the text. (When, in astonishment, another character points out that Darwin's first name has an "E" in it, Henry counters that he intends to call Charles "Chuck.")

Henry and Ernie go into business together and meet with almost immediate, unprecedented success. One hit series spins off into another. But, corrupted by success -- and knowledge of mass culture -- Henry begins a downward spiral in this relatively short play (about 80 minutes long, without an intermission). Gottlieb directs all of this with a flashy, devil-may-care flair. The production, which boasts a spare but imaginative set designed by Andromache Chalfant, is physically vigorous and comically rigorous.

Evolution's Ione Skye and Josh Hamilton
(Photo: J. Merrill)
As Ernie, Armando Riesco delivers a virtuoso monologue that bounces ideas around like a pinball; between Sherman's lightning language and Riesco's super-charged performance, the speech garners applause such as might be received by a sax player in a jazz band after an amazing solo riff. Larry Block, who plays the show's narrator as well as several other characters, also gets the opportunity to throw intellectual darts at the audience. Many of them stick and garner laughs, because Block is an actor with presence and bite. Meanwhile, Hamilton's boyish, diffident charm makes him seem particularly well cast as Henry; the character needs to be likeable because the audience is tracking him and he does a lot of stupid things. As his girlfriend Hope, Naughton captures the reality of a spoiled but essentially decent young woman. Ione Sky plays a babe and looks the part, but we must report that she has no business being on stage with these other actors. Period.

Evolution is an Urban Empire Company production with an intentionally limited run; the show just opened but is only scheduled to play through October 13.

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