Humdrum 'Galileo' stars undynamic Abraham
Depending on the time and the country, the 17th century science-versus-the-Church conflict in Bertolt Brecht's "Galileo" has been considered an allegory about the individual conscience against Hitler, against Stalin, against the nuclear age and even against conservative theater.
How bizarre, right now, that the middling revival starring F. Murray Abraham at the Classic Stage Company doesn't seem like an allegory at all. As science versus the literal reading of the Bible has become a dominant issue in the presidential election, "Galileo" has suddenly turned into straightforward, timely period drama.
Poor Brecht. When the leftist playwright wrote this seldom-performed work in Germany in the late '30s and revised the script with actor-translator Charles Laughton in Hollywood in 1947, neither man could have expected that Satan and evolution would rival the economy and unemployment as hot topics in 2012.
If only this "Galileo," presented conscientiously in the Laughton version, were half as vital or disturbing as the debate around us. Brian Kulick, artistic director of the company, has reduced the big cast to nine men of variable ability (most playing multiple roles) and a woman (the good Amanda Quaid as Galileo's increasingly less marriageable daughter).
The set, by Adrianne Lobel, is an enchanting environment of orbs and circles, with big balls hanging around the small theater like planets in the sky.
But Abraham, whose dynamism and intelligence have burned through tough skins from Salieri to Shylock, is oddly subdued as the galvanizing scientist-heretic who discovers that the sun, not the earth, is the center of the universe.
Sweeping around years of the Italian Renaissance in a drab brown duster, this Galileo seemed a bit insecure in his lines at a recent preview. In Brecht, of course, Galileo is no hero or martyr but a self-interested survivor and coward who steals the invention of the telescope before making his world-changing discovery. But, surely, his presence must be big.
Meanwhile, the Church and the rich protect their interests by claiming the truth would upset the peasants, who would stop believing hunger was a sacred test of their strength.
An important scene with a ballad singer is reduced to a routine with clowns in white ruffs and red rubber noses. The stakes are high, but the lack of originality brings them down.
WHERE Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St. St.
INFO $60-$65; 212-352-3101; classicstage.org
BOTTOM LINE Timely "Galileo," middling revival