There’s lots of talk about God, the universe and laws of science in Richard N. Goodwin’s “Two Men of Florence,” making its American premiere at Boston’s Huntington Theater after playing in London in 2003 under the title “The Hinge of the World.” Some of the play is ponderous, some of it profound, much of it engaging — which is pretty much as expected for a work that involves Galileo’s faith-shaking findings about the cosmos and matters more earthbound.
But in the end, this story of Galileo’s attempt to convince his own Catholic Church that Earth is not the center of the universe (among other scientific discoveries) comes across as History Channel Plus, with a theatrical flair courtesy of Brit helmer Edward Hall and designer Francis O’Connor. Despite a handsome production, heavyweight actors such as Edward Herrmann and Jay O. Sanders and the inherent drama of the story (also dramatized by Brecht), the production never rises much above Great Debate Theater.
Herrmann brings class, sympathy and human perspective to the role of a once-enlightened cardinal who suddenly sees the foundations of his faith threatened when he becomes Pope Urban VIII. But Sanders delivers too much bluster and brio as Galileo, going from eureka discovery to discovery (telescopes, microscopes and laws of relativity, to name a few).
The thesp is not helped by the dialogue, which traffics in the melodramatic stereotypes of tormented genius: “I am a man with a message without a voice!” or “This is a glimpse into the mind of God!” Supporting characters fare none better: “Be patient, Galileo, your time will come.”
A speechwriter and adviser to presidents Kennedy and Johnson, as well as husband of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, the playwright loves big ideas, and they don’t get much bigger than the conflicts between faith and science. But Goodwin doesn’t know when to stop. His speeches are so crammed with exposition, context and detail that they should come with footnotes.
The script is overstuffed with research, which is admirable in nonfiction works but less so in drama, where we want to get to the heart of the matter (and a little heart would actually be welcome).
Play begins with a reminder that the stakes are high — and burning — with the ongoing Inquisition. Into this hostile climate against reason, physicist and philosopher Galileo sides with Copernicus’ teachings over the Scripture-friendly works of Aristotle to which the church subscribes. (The ancient Greek becomes a bit of a punching bag, brought to comic life in an imagined square-off with Copernicus that nicely dramatizes Galileo’s provocative writings.)
Several attempts at making a human connection between Galileo and his daughter Maria (Molly Schreiber), and between the pope and his old poetry-writing pal Monsignor Ciampoli (a solid Dermot Crowley) are less than artfully explored.
But it’s still hard not to get caught up in the battle for the world’s soul, even as one’s head begins to spin from information overload. Perhaps the work may find future life on university stages, but as it is now, “Two Men of Florence” just goes round and round.