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Senseless Attacks on Reason


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Great Men of Science Nos. 21 & 22

Lookingglass Theatre Company

Between its shallow examination of the debate between faith and reason and its enthusiasm for bathroom humor, the new show at Lookingglass practically defines the word "sophomoric." Though there are a few good moments in Glen Berger's Great Men of Science Nos. 21 & 22, he apes the company's signature work by adapting scholarly texts, but doesn't supply any of the intellectual rigor found in such pieces as The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci and Metamorphoses.

The play focuses on two minor figures of 18th-century science, Jacques de Vaucanson and Lazarro Spallanzani. Act one takes place before the French Revolution and focuses on Vaucanson, who struggles to construct a robot in order to prove that nature's apparent randomness can in fact be reduced to order. Act two takes place during the revolution and concerns Spallanzani's efforts to demonstrate the role of semen in reproduction. Though the two men meet briefly in each act, little connects them but the stereotype of the obsessed and misunderstood genius (a conceit addressed with admirable dispatch in the 1967 movie Bedazzled: "They said Moses was crazy! They said it about Jesus!"--"Yeah, and they said it about a lot of crazy people, too").

Great Men of Science Nos. 21 & 22, being presented in its midwest premiere, misses many opportunities provided by the setting. The French Revolution represented both the triumph of Enlightenment ideas--especially its oxymoronic central principle, faith in rationality--and their destruction. Distrust of religion survives even today in France: witness the current ban on yarmulkes and head scarves in French schools. (Of course the ban is primarily a poorly concealed demonstration of xenophobia directed against Muslim immigrants from North Africa, but it has roots in the nation's historical hostility to institutionalized religion.) Against the backdrop of French secularism, Vaucanson's effort to prove that there is a great design--that there is a God--is both courageous and reactionary. Yet Berger alludes only briefly to the scientist's dispute with the ultrarationalist Voltaire, turning it into nothing more than rivalry over a woman, the French mathematician Madame du Chatelet.

Instead of explaining or illustrating the conflict between these ideas, Berger and director Tracy Letts rely on shtick to carry the audience over the dry bits. Vaucanson discusses the nature of the universe with his head between his mistress's legs, or in conversation with a doctor who introduces himself by saying "Show me your penis," or while wetting himself and watching Spallanzani vomit at an elegant party. None of these devices illuminates the scholar's thinking, and unfortunately none is funny either. Yes, there's an entire industry devoted to jokes about digestion, but We are not amused.

It's not for lack of trying on the part of the cast, though. Playing Vaucanson, Joey Slotnick suggests both Gene Wilder as the mad scientist courting a sheep in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex...but Were Afraid to Ask and whichever Stooge it was who had a high forehead and wild curly hair. (Was he Curly or Moe? If you have to ask, you won't enjoy this show.) Slotnick vigorously undertakes a variety of pratfalls and gamely mouths the endless "Why a duck?" jokes the author can't resist in connection with the scientist's creation of a mechanical waterfowl. My companion commented after the first act that much of the text seemed to be filler and wondered if the jokes would be funnier done once instead of eight times. The only scene in the act that really clicks is the one between Slotnick and David Pasquesi, who plays Spallanzani--and even there it's not the text that carries the day but the charm of the actors and their Abbott-and-Costello interactions.

Act two is even shorter on text and longer on shtick than act one, as it features the aged Spallanzani and his even more ancient housekeeper (Lauren Katz) attempting to hide from the Reign of Terror while constructing satin breeches for 29 frogs (don't ask). Again, the exchanges between the actors make parts of the act worth watching, but their unspoken tenderness keeps getting disrupted by jokes about chamber pots and masturbation. At their best, the characters' circular conversations and struggles up and down the steep stairs to Spallanzani's basement laboratory suggest Beckett's Endgame or Ionesco's The Chairs, evoking an existential commitment to doing science while blood runs in the streets. But again, every intellectual question is neglected: How did rational opposition to the idea of tyranny become unreasoning fear of all ideas? How did the guillotine, invented as a more humane form of execution, become the emblem of utter barbarism? What threat could scientists like Spallanzani, his friend the mathematician Condorcet (Thomas J. Cox), or his neighbor, the aging Vaucanson, possibly pose to the new regime? If you're going to put on a play about ideas as revolutions and ideas in revolutions, you have to do more than project equations on screens upstage.

The music, ordinarily a Lookingglass strong suit, is intrusively bad: the opening and closing song, by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman, is either tuneless or sung off-key, and the lyrics are the sort of mumbo jumbo that might sound profound if you don't listen too closely. Nor was it necessary to expose Nicole Wiesner's breast to get us to pay attention to Madame du Chatelet, whose scholarship would stand on its own quite nicely if Berger and Letts ever allowed her to get out of bed.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.

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