Jonathan Marc Sherman is back on the boards in New York with the lively, thought-provoking new play Evolution. Billed as a modern morality tale, it’s part fable, part sex comedy, and part meta-theatrical romp through history and pop culture. The play is both an addition to, and a comment on, our current era’s love affair with all things fast and furious; this, combined with crackling dialogue and a fervent staging, make some of its inconsistencies forgivable.
Henry, the hapless college student around whom the story unfolds, is faced with an unnerving question by his professor: “What do you want?” Henry realizes that the answer may have nothing to do with his thesis, a study of Charles Darwin’s personal life. In an attempt, perhaps, to make this project more challenging, Henry is writing it with the cryptic omission of any word that contains the letter “e”. But as academically astute as he is, his knowledge of the world around him and the mass media that infuses it is as a newborn’s. His girlfriend, Hope, is taking him home with her to Los Angeles during a semester break. It is there, in the ultimate plastic dream factory, that Henry discovers his unlikely want. Hope’s brother, Ernie, is a drug-using ne’er-do-well waiting for his fifteen minutes of fame to begin, and in Henry he sees an opportunity to break into television. Henry is his “tabula rasa,” whose very ignorance and naiveté are the prime ingredients for fresh new programming. Our protagonist stumbles into pitching a sitcom called “Eve-olution,” and soon Hope and Darwin are ancient history.
Urban Empire has given Sherman’s play nearly everything it needs for a strong jump out of the gate, including some pitch-perfect scenic elements. Director Lizzie Gottlieb is attuned to the irony and self-referential nature of the piece, and keeps us grounded among its sudden shifts in action. Larry Block plays the Story Teller (and various other roles) with a knowing wink; Keira Naughton is a brash and dominating Hope; Josh Hamilton makes Henry’s difficult journey authentic; Peter Dinklage is more than walking subtext as Rex, the TV studio lackey; and kudos to Armando Riesco as Ernie, who tears through a speed-induced monologue with great precision. The only actor I didn’t fully believe was Ione Skye as Gina; her best moment is in a split-scene as a phone sex operator; as she talks dirty to Hope’s father (while Hope and Henry nuzzle within earshot), he casually interjects with a “Yep” or an “Uh-huh.” But as her role expands, she seems to shrink under it.
At an intermissionless ninety minutes, Evolution leaves a number of stones unturned. When Henry rushes into his new career as TV producer, Hope lets him go too easily. The idea of ambition being analogous to evolution is thrown in, but not deeply explored. And the play ends suddenly, somewhat disingenuously, without allowing the characters to wrestle much with their choices. Still, Henry’s transformation is a frightening one, and it makes this cautionary tale very real indeed. According to Ernie, Darwin is alive and well and living in your TV set; if that’s true, he’s also making an inventive guest appearance at 45 Bleecker Street.