Still Obscure After All These Years
Glen Berger's new play, Great Men of Science, Nos. 21 & 22, is a disaster of such epic proportions that it practically begs comparison to the Titanic and the Hindenberg. Indeed, ten minutes after it leaves port, so to speak, this world premiere by the author of A Suit to Please the Lord is no longer steaming full speed ahead across the ocean of imaginative possibilities. Rather it cruises in a leisurely fashion into the iceberg of dramatic dead-ends. I don't think there is any hope of survivors.
Pardon the bad metaphors, but hey, you sit through two and a half hours of this excruciatingly dull work and try to think of something intelligent to say. The doomed cruise liner and airship come to mind for a number of reasons. Great Men tells the story of two minor 18th-century scientists, Jacques de Vaucanson and Lazarro Spallanzani, whose contributions to their fields, while not revolutionary, paved the way for longer-lasting scientific discoveries in the same way that the low-tech blimp and luxury ocean liner were innovations in their day but now languish in the graveyard of bad ideas. Never heard of these guys? De Vaucanson is credited with the invention of one of the first robots (without him, no R2D2), while Spallanzani pioneered an early version of artificial insemination (without him, no McCauley septuplets).
Did de Vaucanson and Spallanzani work together? No, neither in real life nor in the play. The playwright allows his two protagonists to meet for a brief moment early in the first act, but Great Men is divided into two distinct time periods. Act One takes place in 1738 and concerns the efforts of de Vaucanson to build a mechanical duck in order to prove that God exists. (More on that later.) Act Two is set 56 years later and traces the efforts of the now-elderly Spallanzani to study the role of semen in reproduction. He does so in part by sewing dozens of tiny pairs of green taffeta pants for frogs. By summing up the action in this way, I have perhaps made the play seem more interesting than it actually is. In reality there is nothing in Great Men that remotely resembles a compelling dramatic situation, an engaging emotional problem, or an idea worth dissecting.
It is disheartening to have to report this. The Florida Stage cast is, for the most part, an excellent one, populated by actors -- Dan Leonard, Susan Gay, J. C. Cutler, Viki Boyle, and Michael George Owens, in particular -- whose talents I admire and whom I hope to see again soon in more-worthy material. And while it's disappointing to have a dream cast wasted on a bad text, it's equally unsettling to write a negative review of the play, given that Louis Tyrrell continues to be one of the few artistic directors to bring new works to South Florida. Last year's production of Doug Wright's Quills was one of the most exciting events of the entire South Florida theater season. What I had hoped for in the inaugural production of this season, which consists of two Florida premieres and another world premiere, was a play that didn't make me resort to counting the lighting fixtures above my head, hoping that the ensuing 150 minutes would tick by a little faster.
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A major shortcoming in Great Men, which was first presented in workshop by Blue Peach Productions in New York, is that, while it masquerades as a whimsical essay on immortality, it's really a collection of disparate images and half-formed thoughts held together by the intellectual equivalent of Silly Putty. Set in the 18th Century, the play tries to evoke a society adjusting to the discovery of Newtonian physics. "We're all living equations," de Vaucanson says in a rare imaginative moment. This production, helmed by Tyrrell, makes use of a recurring chorus line, of sorts, in which women bearing cardboard representations of the stars, the sun, and some comets prance on stage from time to time in imitation of a minuet. I think the director and his designer, the talented Richard Crowell, mean to suggest the order and design of the 18th-century universe as it pervades both art and science. The reality is that the dancers soon become an annoyance, flitting about the overcrowded stage with predictable regularity.
Without any real idea to explore, the first half of the play also doesn't have a well-drawn main protagonist. The failure of Kevin Blake to draw us in probably has more to do with de Vaucanson's lack of dramatic purpose than any dearth of acting talent. I'm not sure anyone could find the center of this play and take us there, but Blake delivers line-readings rather than a performance. The result, unfortunately, is an emptiness where the main character should be. It's impossible to tell what the playwright wants to call to our attention. As for Spallanzani (J.C. Cutler) and his frogs, by the time he appeared in his garret laboratory, as the French Revolution raged outside, Berger's failure to tell even the semblance of an interesting story had worn my patience thin.
But wait, you're asking, where does the mechanical duck come in? As in real life, de Vaucanson set out on an impassioned quest to construct a mechanical animal in response to a contest sponsored by the French Royal Academy of Science. All comers were invited to refute or prove the statement that "the apparent randomness of events in nature will, if subject to calculation, reveal an underlying order expressing exquisite wisdom and design." In other words nature is proof that God exists. The physicist chose to prove this idea while his romantic rival Voltaire, the famous social scientist, refuted it. (Voltaire does not make an appearance on stage. We learn of him from Gabrielle du Chatelet, the woman who is de Vaucanson's lover, a patron of the sciences who is pregnant by one of two paramours.)
Why a duck? The playwright goes to a lot of trouble to have several characters ask this very question. But instead of conjuring the inane silliness the Marx Brothers produced when they delivered this line, Berger's jokes are as forced and synthetic as his hero's invention. Duck elements, however, deviously work their way into a recurring motif. De Vaucanson's unique webbed toes are passed on to the next generation, for example.
Berger seems to be going for an effect akin to that of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, an intelligent and delicately constructed play in which love, landscape architecture, and calculus are combined to reveal new ideas about history. At the end of Great Men, however, all we're left with is the ridiculous specter of a mechanical duck. Indeed this machine may be designed to eat and defecate on command, but it's not the real thing. The same can be said of Berger's overcalculated drama.
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