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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
INHERIT THE WIND
at the Lyceum Theater, NY

MONKEY BUSINESS
By Mervyn Rothstein

  Christopher Plummer(left) and Brian Dennehy

Too bad.

The battle over the teaching of evolution in our country's schools is as newsworthy today as it was in 1925, when John Scopes, a high school science teacher in Tennessee, was tried for making Darwin's theories a part of his classroom curriculum - or in 1955, when Inherit the Wind, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's stage version of the trial, first opened on Broadway.

"I am trying to stop you bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States," Henry Drummond, the defense lawyer, says near the end of the play. These days, newspaper headlines often prove that those bigots and ignoramuses are still at work - or, as Drummond puts it a few minutes later, "You don't suppose this kind of thing is ever finished?"

The original production starred the legendary Paul Muni as Henry Drummond, Scopes' lawyer ­- a fictional version of the real-life defense attorney, Clarence Darrow - and Ed Begley as Matthew Harrison Brady, a k a William Jennings Bryan, the three-time former presidential candidate and Bible-quoting defender of the faith. The play won three Tony Awards, including nods for Muni as best actor and Begley as best featured actor.

A 1996 Broadway revival featured George C. Scott as Drummond and Charles Durning as Brady. Now Inherit the Wind is back, with two more top-tier actors: Christopher Plummer as Drummond and Brian Dennehy as Brady.

And yet, this new production fails to come alive, lacks all passion, never fully involves us, never makes us feel that once again "the right to think is very much on trial" (as it was 52 years ago, when the play premiered in the dark age of Communist witch hunts and the blacklist).

The question, then, is why this production misses the mark. Some of the blame must fall on the director, Doug Hughes, who has done much better Broadway work in both Doubt and Frozen. The supporting cast he has chosen, and directed, is so weak that it destroys any chance the revival might have to succeed. Maggie Lacey as Rachel, a fellow teacher enamored of Bert Cates, the Scopes character, speaks in a seemingly endless monotone and lacks all believability. Benjamin Walker as Cates never convinces us that he cares about, let alone champions, evolution. Byron Jennings, as Rachel's father, the Bible-pounding Reverend Jeremiah Brown, is missing any spark of fire, or brimstone.

The fine actor Denis O'Hare , so wonderful in Take Me Out and Assassins, seems to have dropped in from another play. He is E. K. Hornbeck, "the most brilliant journalist in America," the cynical reporter from Baltimore - portrayed by Tony Randall in the original and based on the well-known newspaperman H.L. Mencken. Every move, every inflection, every stance is mannered and artificial - he is an actor posturing onstage, not a character. Even his attempts at cynicism fall flat.

Ah yes, you say, but what about Plummer and Dennehy, two of the finest actors around? Well, Dennehy is O.K., but never for a moment does he make you feel that he inhabits Brady, that to him, every word of the Bible is sacred, every syllable unquestioningly true - that the heavens and Earth were certainly created in seven days, that the universe is without doubt some 6,000 years old. Brady, in the end, is larger than life, and Dennehy's portrayal never comes alive.

Plummer, of course, is always worth watching. But even he seems worn out by the knowledge that those with whom he shares the stage of the Lyceum Theater are letting him, and the audience, down.

In these days when straight plays cost millions of dollars and casts oft

 


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