Indeed, buried deep in The Comet's Tale is the germ of a play that comments on the intersection of the genius and the common man. Newton and Halley needed each other to succeed, but were they exploiting each other? Who had the most to gain? And what would have resulted if the women in these men's lives were given something substantial to do and say and not be reduced to auxiliary roles? (Actresses Mursuli and Janet Erlick, cast as Halley's barefoot-and-pregnant wife, are utterly wasted here.) We'll have to leave it to a better playwright to explore those dramatic galaxies, a playwright who is interested in creating complex characters, not just stick figures reciting lines in The Comet's Tale.
At the Hollywood Playhouse, the two men are impersonated by troupers whose acting skills are almost mirror images of their characters' talents. Haig is a perfectionist, an actor whose every movement -- from the way he scratches his nose to the manner in which he walks across the stage -- is designed down to the smallest detail. As always he is a pleasure to watch. Swaner's performance, on the other hand, is affected and mannered, coupled here with a bad British accent. (I found it hard to understand him and I can't imagine that the Playhouse's mostly retired subscribers could hear him at all.) Two other actors -- Jeffrey Taylor as Swift and Gene Gabriel as Leibniz -- are playing plot devices rather than characters.
The lack of authentic characters leaves Rich Simone's scenic design as the star of the show, though it really deserves to be in a different production altogether, as do Ann Toewe's well-appointed costumes. Using the limited physical resources of the Playhouse's proscenium stage, Simone has concocted a set that, for the play's opening and closing, gives us an illusion of stars that stretch deep into the midnight blue of infinity. (Ginny Adams' lighting design augments this magic, although in other scenes actors are unintentionally obscured by their fellow actors' shadows.)
Indeed, the sets say more than the playwright does. For interior scenes, furniture and curtains are constructed of bare, unupholstered wood that still bears the carpenter's marks and measurements, as if to remind us that Newton showed us brave new ways to measure the universe. All that's needed now is someone to tell the story.
The Comet's Tale.
Written by Rand Higbee. Directed by Andy Rogow. Starring Peter Haig, Mark Swaner, Janet Erlick, Meridith Mursuli, Jeffrey Taylor, and Gene Gabriel. Through April 4. Hollywood Playhouse, 2640 Washington St., Hollywood, 954-922-0404.