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Peter Parnell's biodrama about Charles Darwin isn't sufficiently dramatic. logo
Michael Cristofer and Manoel Felciano
in Trumpery
(© Doug Hamilton)
If you're among the educated masses who consider Charles Darwin the sole theorist behind the publication of On the Origin of Species, Peter Parnell has an urgent bulletin for you! His problematic new play, Trumpery, which is receiving its world premiere at the Atlantic Theater, is the result of an obsession triggered after learning that hardly-obscure British scientist Alfred Russel Wallace was also inextricably involved with the hurried appearance of Darwin's earth-shaking 1859 tome. Parnell has made a gallant effort to turn the heavy background reading he did into gripping drama rather than revisionist essay -- and director David Esbjornson has given him a stately production -- but only occasionally does he offer up dynamics that couldn't be confined to the pages of an academic journal.

The back-story here is that just as Darwin was putting finishing touches on 20 years of thoughts about natural selection, he received a manuscript from the globe-hopping Wallace that documented similar observations and extrapolations. (Wallace didn't use the term "natural selection"; that remains Darwin's phrase.) The Wallace revelation threw Darwin into a tailspin, resulting in an insistence on delivering his essays to the revered Linnean Society of London in tandem with Wallace's. He also demanded that the Wallace name be linked with his whenever the religion-defying theory was expounded. Yet, that linking hasn't lasted into the 21st Century, has it?

Parnell campaigns to right that wrong, while emphasizing both men's vulnerable human traits. He does so by interpolating the story -- which happened at a different point in history -- of Darwin (an intense Michael Cristofer) and his frustrated wife Emma (Bianca Amato) worrying about the couple's ailing daughter, Annie (Paris Rose Yates). Visiting Darwin's residence, Down House -- elaborately designed by Santo Loquasto -- at various times are ever-affable Darwin colleagues Thomas Henry Huxley (the jolly Neal Huff) and J. D. Hooker (the equally jovial Michael Countryman), who side with him in his concern about Wallace, as well as the religion-abiding biologist-paleontologist Richard Owen (the always expert Peter Maloney), a vehement evolutionary theory naysayer.

In the second act, he brings on the understanding, worshipful Wallace (a genial Manoel Felciano), and the congregating men swap ideas, while Darwin and Emma quarrel over his repudiation of religion and spirituality. There's even a seance Emma insists on, conducted by the era's famous medium Charles Williams (Maloney again, this time in rust-colored wig and elaborate facial hair). Indeed, what Parnell wants to moot is Darwin's ethical struggles over Wallace's somewhat simultaneous discoveries, as well as his conflicted attitudes toward assailing conventional religious beliefs. The more overarching issue, however, is whether scientific discovery inevitably routs religion and spirituality or whether there's a place for all three.

Yet, too often, audience members are apt to notice themselves drumming fingers on armrests while waiting for something dramatic. One moving example of something intriguing that does happen is the sight of Darwin fighting with himself over whether to pray for the doomed Annie's recovery, while another is a fervent second-act exchange in which Wallace expresses his sincere gratitude to Darwin for being an inspiration and mentor. The implication is that Darwin's view of Malthusian competition leading to natural selection -- or "survival of the fittest" -- might somehow be tempered by evolution-impelling natural cooperation.

For those scratching their heads over the title's significance, Parnell found the word included in an actual letter that Darwin sent fellow scientist Charles Lyell in which he excuses the "trumpery," or foolishness, of his concern over the Wallace attribution predicament. In a speech in the play, however, Darwin begs his friend Huxley: "Did I mean it in the sense of trickery or deceit -- a motive dwelling in the darkest part of myself?" Meanwhile, playgoers may conclude that "trumpery" means falling short of fully dramatizing a vital chapter in the history of scientific discovery.

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