The criticisms leveled at Melinda Lopez's From Orchids to Octopi (at the Central Square Theater through May 2) are basically on target: its structure is a chick-lit cliché, and so are its sexual politics. But I still thought it was okay, particularly as it was commissioned by the National Institutes of Health to put over the theory of evolution in dramatic terms, and it manages to do that, pretty much, in an entertaining fashion.
Indeed, it's when the show is at its most didactic that it's also the most fun, thanks to some delightful costumes and props, broad but tight playing by the bemused cast (as they essay the roles of various fish, mammals and dinosaurs), and especially David Fichter's wonderful mural (at left, with the artist), which is slowly assembled over the course of the play, before being revealed in its entirety in a brilliant coup de théâtre.
Alas, it's true that Lopez's "frame story" is too much like too many other plays of late: contemporary professional woman (here "Emma") becomes obsessed with a figure from the past (here Darwin), and before you can say "Voyeurs de Venus!" or "Legacy of Light!" past and present have become intertwined, figures are popping in and out of space-time, reproduction has been muddled with creativity, and warm, uplifting life lessons have been dusted off from back episodes of Touched by an Angel. To make matters worse, the central relationship between modern "Emma" and her husband "Charles" (do I have to remind you of the names of the historical Darwins?) is likewise direct from chick-lit-journal-land: Emma's sweetheart of a husband is just becoming too successful, and isn't paying enough attention to her as she juggles the pressures of both an unexpected pregnancy and a commission for a mural about you-know-who.
These, I'm sure, are like the real problems of many couples, but let's just say that the original Darwins faced worse - plus these are problems (pregnancy, success) that a lot of other couples would kill for. So it's hard to feel too much sympathy for our New Age Emma and Chuck, particularly as Emma seems kind of high-maintenance to begin with. There's a more intriguing plotline revolving around the fears she entertains about that "genetic lottery" once she has learned more about it - but we get the feeling as these issues edged toward questions of reproductive rights (and even, possibly, "smushsmortion") they were trimmed back, more's the pity. And as for the quite-dramatic (and highly relevant) arc that Darwin himself traced - from Anglican trainee to biblical debunker - well, somehow that's never in the dramatic cards at all.
Still, even if her structure is both predictable and unwieldy, Lopez does craft her individual scenes well, and she has dreamed up some clever skits to convey the essence of that "genetic lottery," complete with Wesley Slavick slicing the ham deliciously as a kind of cosmic carnival barker who passes out mutations like prizes at a county fair to hopeful Paleozoics who line up for their big chance. There are also some snappy scenes with Debra Wise as a no-nonsense OB/GYN, and the play even generates a few chills with Tom O'Keefe's turn as the ever-mutating tuberculosis bacillus. Only Kortney Adams, as Emma, never gets to have any fun.
But Lopez's smartest move was getting real-life muralist David Fichter on board. His paintings for last season's Galileo have become the stuff of legend, and he has operated at the same delightfully high standard here (we even learned in a talkback that his own research generated some of Lopez's dialogue; now that's convergent evolution for you). I'm not sure what the Catalyst Collaborative@MIT, which sponsored From Orchids to Octopi with Underground Railway Theater, is pondering next, but my advice is: try to pick a subject that David Fichter can paint!