The California Repertory Company seems to be wishing us an early happy Halloween with its West Coast premiere of Dan O'Brien's Lamarck. With stormy nights, howling, screaming and plenty of monsters—including a caricature of Benjamin Franklin suffering from out-of-control flatulence—the show has Oct. 31 written all over it. Most macabre of all is the stunning set, recessed dramatically six feet below stage level. The effect is that of a crypt—a metaphor all too appropriate for this dead-on-arrival play.
The title character is Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, also known as Chevalier de Lamarck, a French botanist who, 50 years before Darwin, proposed that organisms evolve in order to adapt to their environment. The play is not really about him or his work but the tortured life of his mentally ill daughter, Cornelie.
The play aspires to dramatize the irony of Lamarck's advanced theories in light of his abuses of his own daughter. But it doesn't quite get there, and the story seems more like a slow-moving, one-note soap opera. And that one note is usually shrill: just about every scene ends with a character yelling at the top of his or her lungs. Adding to the unpleasantness, the playwright is pretty liberal with vulgar language and behavior. Altogether, a dark mood pervades the evening, underscored by several poorly lit scenes. While the proceedings are broken up by the occasional funny line, I feel obligated to sound the alarm of false advertising: the marquee outside describes the show as a comedy.
Danila Korogodsky's terrific set stands out as the highlight of this funereal drama. Callan White, the actress who plays Cornelie, will forgive me for saying she looks much too youthful to play such an old lady. Other than the distraction of her baby face, however, she is effective as a bitter and deranged oldster. As her would-be suitor, St. Hilaire, Jay Wallace turns in a graceful and credible performance. On the downside, many of the actors seem to have been given a free hand by director Adrian Giurgea, and all that beautiful scenery frequently gets chewed up.
Altogether, if you are trick-or-treating for a noisy, imponderable downer, Lamarckis just the ticket.
Lamarck at the Edison Theatre, 213 E. Broadway, Long Beach, (562) 432-1818. Tues.-Thurs., 7 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m. Through Oct. 13. $17-$20.