While it’s artfully written, gorgeously staged and performed by a strong ensemble topped by the masterful Michael Cristofer, the biodrama “Trumpery” proves more unsettling than illuminating in its depiction of Charles Darwin having a personal and professional meltdown. Scribe Peter Parnell’s thesis is that the great scientist was profoundly conflicted about the publication of “The Origin of Species” and tormented by feelings of guilt. The point being made with such stunning theatricality, it would take an extremely well-read and scientifically savvy aud to distinguish between the speculative nature of the thesis and the persuasive artistry of its execution.
The stagecraft for this Atlantic Theater production does the industry proud. Script calls for a rendering of Down House, the bucolic cottage in rural England where Darwin lived and worked at the time the play opens in spring 1858, and the design team delivers something close to heaven. Indeed, the trees branching over Santo Loquasto’s warm and woodsy outdoor set all seem to be reaching in that direction.
We know it’s springtime in this garden setting because James F. Ingalls’ soft lighting scheme tells us so, as does the concert of gentle breezes and nesting songbirds conducted by sound designer Obadiah Eaves. And whenever characters make an appearance, they do so in costumes by Jane Greenwood that observe the season as well as the period.
If there are construction flaws in Parnell’s articulate script — which seizes on the professional pickle Darwin (Cristofer) finds himself in when a nobody by the name of Alfred Russel Wallace (Manoel Felciano) anticipates his theory of natural selection — David Esbjornson’s authoritative helming never allows them to surface. Each scene is so efficiently mapped out, played through and linked to the next, it seems a logical intellectual progression from Parnell’s initial point — that Darwin felt ethically compromised by his rush to finish “The Origin of Species” before Wallace could beat him to it — to the playwright’s more controversial notion that the scientist was equally conflicted about his own lack of religious belief and felt profound guilt about “robbing” decent Christians of their faith.
If anyone can make us swallow this indigestible mental morsel, it is actor-playwright-screenwriter Cristofer, who clearly knows a thing or two about multitasking. Cristofer bristles from head to toe with intelligence whenever Darwin is in discussion with collegial peers like botanist Joseph Hooker (a much-amused observer of the scientific wars in Michael Countryman’s on-pitch perf) and naturalist adventurer Thomas Huxley (a brash charmer in Neal Huff’s roguish turn).
Without putting that wonderful mind to sleep, Cristofer can also quiver with emotion when Darwin as the fond paterfamilias agonizes over the critical illness of his 12-year-old daughter, Annie (Paris Rose Yates), and the severe moral disapproval of his judgmental wife, Emma (Bianca Amato in a perpetually pained but never pinched perf).
Swept along by the taut dramaturgy, the propulsive direction and, above all, Cristofer’s forceful characterization, Darwin is driven up against a wall. Dramatically, there is no way out for the great scientist and avowed agnostic — especially when Felciano’s sweet-tempered Wallace appears to extend a spiritual hand. He is going to suffer for his sins. Somehow, one doubts that Charles Darwin ever fell to his knees and rolled around in the mud, comparing himself to an earthworm and ranting like a madman for “killing” God. But it does make damned effective theater.