Lucy, You Can't Be in the Show
Now, if never before, with intelligent design worming its way through academia, we could really use a good evolution play, one that looks at the natural history of man in the way that Copenhagen looked at nuclear physics and Proof looked at mathematics. But, even with its promising title, Melanie Marnich's Cradle of Man, which opened last week at Florida Stage, isn't it.
The "Cradle of Man" reference is to Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania's Rift Valley, which holds nerdy-rock-star status. It's where the Leakey family of paleontologists and the scientists they inspired have played in the dirt since the mid-20th Century, discovering hominid after hominid link between man and ape. And it's where the breakthrough skeleton nicknamed "Lucy" was discovered in the 1970s before going on her own kind of Tut-like tour, making museum crowds sit back to wonder about how we evolved into the oh-so-patient I-95 drivers we are today.
However, the richness of that scientific legacy isn't to be revealed in Cradle of Man. Instead, in a Dares Salaam hotel, gringo couples cross paths in a tiresome evening of Love Boat-style adultery that's only flavored with anthropological references in the same way microwave popcorn is flavored with "butter."
In the play, paleoanthropologist Debra (Elizabeth Rich) and her husband, Mason, (Chris Clavelli) mix it up with relief workers Bonnie (Jennifer Mendenhall) and her husband, Jack (Chamblee Ferguson), who have in tow Jack's dipsomaniacal mother, Mona (Helen-Jean Arthur). While Debra spends her days lecturing to a senior citizen elder-hostel tour about primates and Jack is out distributing medicine, Mason and Bonnie lazily circle each other's fire.
Bonnie is the predator, her prey Mason, an elitist prep school Latin teacher who, as Bonnie cuttingly remarks, is "sort of superior in a mediocre way." Mason's idea of exotic is browsing Barnes & Noble's mythology section. Yet, oddly urbane Bonnie, able to toss about witty Latin wordplays like carpe nox, to inspire Mason to seize the night can't get enough of the guy.
This is the first production of Marnich's play, which was part of Florida Stage's New Voices reading series last season and is scheduled to head next to Chicago and New York. Like some other productions by Florida Stage the very fine Sisters of Swing and Exits and Entrances, to name only two in the past year Cradle of Man is a collaboration of local and national theater folks. However, Cradle is very far from very fine.
Scientists meeting up with missionaries is a cool premise. "Scientists we're optimists. We have high hopes for our species," Debra says. And we have high hopes going into the play. Is an intriguing science-versus-religion debate in store? Nay. Instead, Cradle uses the thin scientific conceit of the academic lecture hall as a syringe to inject ponderous revelations about love.
This conceit is, at first, the play's wittiest moment. Debra starts her first lecture with "Good morning elder-hostelers!" followed by the theater's house lights coming up to reveal the play's sleepy audience. Her comment gets its immediate, deserved guffaw. In the audience of about 100, I was, sadly, perhaps the fifth youngest person. Yes, the audience was the stereotypical senior elder-hostel crowd, and it laughingly acknowledged it.
Debra's lectures, with slide shows of baobab trees and fossils, riff on the evolution of apes crawling on all fours into humans with full bipedal stature, as man stood up to achieve a higher intellectual and, presumably, moral state. However, Debra's uninterestingly "poignant" lectures, meant to segue between scenes of the adulterous pair's interactions, turn into jibber-jabber about making bad choices in life and being naturally selected out, as it were. After the second such lecture, you simply tune out.
Cradle of Man is really a play about tourists leaving their comfort zones, evolving in their relationships (get it?) when faced with the challenging surroundings of a devil-may-care Third World country where fooling around is heartily encouraged.
"What happens here stays here" is uttered more than once, making Dar es Salaam the Las Vegas of the Indian Ocean. Who knew?
Among the audience's head-shaking remarks during intermission was loudly overheard: "It's like Peyton Place goes to Africa." One could only wish. It's more like a pilot episode for a bad Ted Danson sitcom a sub-Saharan Becker. Even with its occasionally clever exchanges, Cradle is clunky, with lots of misspent and misconceived emotion, including some shamelessly exploitative dialogue about the Holocaust, seemingly thrown in for extra weight, in a cheap expression of how man has never quite fully evolved out of savagery.
Paleontologist Debra is thinly drawn. Mason is incomprehensible. High-strung Jack is just occupying space, tossing about trite wordplays without resolution, like: "I don't want to climb Kilimanjaro because it's there. I want to because I'm here." Yikes. Upright performances and directing can save none of these actors flown in to star in the play. Even Arthur and Mendenhall's yeoman work as drunk Mona and randy missionary wife Bonnie can't rescue the words they're forced to speak.
Almost two long hours into Cradle of Man's Love Boat more than an hour after you've lost trust in its navigation you get the punchline. "You're back on all fours," Debra sadly declares to Mason after learning of his adultery. "I'm back on all fours." Can they evolve past the adulterous road bump in their marriage? Do we care?
What's left to say after curtain call? Overheard but tactfully understated by what appeared to be the youngest of the youngest five people in the audience, was this: "Well, I've seen better."
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