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Whether or not you believe that cavemen regularly fought dinosaurs, it’s slyly satisfying to see Charles Darwin portrayed as such a fatuous prick.
Except it’s not really Darwin, it’s Tom (Eric Messner), who with Ian (Grady Weatherford), is rehearsing a play about the second voyage of the As the rehearsal process proceeds, the actors discuss the historical and theoretical issues raised by the characters they portray.
But what keeps Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play from showing on the hour in musty science museums is exactly what makes After Darwin so fun and, in its way, even daring: Wertenbaker locates the play’s emotional center not in Darwin but in Robert FitzRoy, the dour, religious captain of the Beagle whose worldview—whose world, in fact—Darwin stands poised to destroy.
The historical deck is stacked against FitzRoy, a man who publicly and vociferously regretted the part he played in the development of Darwin’s ideas. Despite his considerable contributions to the science of meteorology, FitzRoy is the man for whom the term “historical footnote” seems to have been coined; Ian thinks of the captain as “the one who got it wrong.”
In early moments, it’s sometimes difficult to follow Messner and Weatherford as they switch between the historical characters and the modern-day actors, but that, it quickly becomes clear, is kind of the point. Our feelings for Tom and Ian inform our feelings for the men they portray in the play-within-a-play because they are meant to; it’s a gambit the playwright uses to allow us to see Darwin and FitzRoy as men, unobscured by the scrim of historyÔªø.
It’s one of several nifty ideas in a good play, but in the script it reads as if it has been imposed on the characters, like the writer’s schematic it is. What director Shirley Serotsky and her actors have achieved at Church Street is something rounder, messier, and more human.
Weatherford lends the world-weary Ian (and, by extension, FitzRoy) great depths of intelligence and emotion, and some of the play’s funniest moments are born of Ian/FitzRoy’s slow-burning frustration with Messner’s Tom/Darwin. Weatherford chews his words in a way that suggests a man at war with himself—and losing.
Messner is pitch-perfect as the vainglorious and intellectually uncurious Tom, who doesn’t understand a word of the play or why it matters much. What I suspect the playwright didn’t count on, however, was Messner’s charisma as an actor. His Tom is foppish, frivolous, and aggressively dim, but he is also charming, and Messner’s performance overcomes the play’s repeated attempts to make us dislike the guy.
Serotsky and her actors (including Elizabeth E. Richards and Dallas Darttanian Miller) have successfully identified the script’s biggest weakness—an over-reliance on its central metaphor—and they nimbly compensate for it. Natural selection is a powerful and evocative concept, but whenever one of the characters evokes it to describe his or her struggle for wealth, or acceptance, or identity, they do so with language that’s disappointingly on-the-nose. The characters talk too often and too eloquently about “adaptation” or “competition” or “survival”; you’ll lose count of the number of times Wertenbaker goes back to that particular well.
It’s unnecessary, all those rhetorical elbows to the ribs, because the actors are so effective at fleshing out the very conflicts the script keeps trying to underline. Under Serotsky’s direction, the actors downplay the more ham-fisted snippets of dialogue by either speeding through them or delivering them as asides.
It works, at least until the play’s last few minutes, which pile on the evolutionary imagery and feature a betrayal that, ironically, makes more sense on the page than it does on the stage. Still, when a company makes an interesting play more so, as Journeymen has here, attention must be paid.