nytheatre.com review by Robin Rothstein
August 14, 2009
Though our species has evolved a good two million years since the Pliocene Epoch, history, as the saying goes, still has a way of repeating itself. If we aren't careful, for example, we can become paralyzed by our unhappy childhoods and prone to repeat the mistakes of our parents. In Natural History, an offering at this year's New York International Fringe Festival, playwright Ian August champions the idea that we can ultimately figure out how to move forward in our lives if we travel back to our pasts and dig up old skeletons. However, despite some strong performances and evidence of an inherently unique voice, Natural History still has a way to go in its own evolution.
When Natural History begins, we meet a young, timid woman named Lucy. She enters upstage of a stanchion, appearing at first to be standing before a museum exhibit. It soon becomes clear that Lucy is the exhibit, as two ironic chaperones enter and speak to an unseen elementary school class on a trip to the Museum of Natural History. As we follow Lucy on her journey of self-discovery, the play's style alternates between quirky surrealism and melodramatic realism, with August drawing various thematic parallels between Lucy and her sense of self, and "Lucy," the famed Australopithecus afarensis specimen discovered in Africa in 1974.
Why Lucy has grown into an unhappy adult is partly revealed when we learn that she is the daughter of a woman well-known for writing a children's book about a fat little French girl named Lucy Le Gros. Lucy's mother, Maureen, whom we meet throughout the play, is a sharp-tongued, self-pitying lush and the main root of Lucy's lifelong self-esteem problems.
Natural History's central weakness is that Lucy is written as a passive victim. A cheerful and vivacious young protester named Ethan falls head over heels for her, but Lucy is so lacking in any sort of charm that it is hard to understand what Ethan sees in her. Robyn Frank plays Lucy in static fashion, which does not help matters. The bright spot of the production is the energetic supporting cast. Andrea Gallo, Simon Kendall, and Franny Silverman perform their multiple roles with confident comedic precision. They seem to be in a completely different play than Frank, and it is their play that I would have much preferred watching.
Maura Farver directs with a smart efficiency that works well for this level of production, but she does little to strengthen the story arc, or make Lucy someone you want to root for. Scenes just seem to happen, one after the other, with little directorial interpretation. David Fowler's glib sound design adds brief bursts of personality, but Maggie Levin's uninspired costumes miss an opportunity to add character. Dressing Lucy in dark, drab colors that blend in with the black stage is a particular misstep.
Natural History has a sensitive core and August's unique style and humor are apparent, but Lucy, who sucks out whatever energy there is in the play, inevitably undermines these bright spots. At one point, Lucy admits to Ethan that she doesn't have a cause, but it seems she at least needs to want a cause if August wants us to care about her, and this play.