The heart of “Tooth and Claw,” Michael Hollinger’s fifth world-debut play at Philadelphia’s Arden Theater, is scientific.
The lingo, the ambience and the physicality of the production is all scientific.
The presence of science on stage, like an ominous invisible character, is a power source for the play. But this science is cancelled out, ironically, by another science: the failed formula of attempted mass appeal.
“Tooth and Claw” tells the story of Schuyler, a young woman taking top post at the Charles Darwin Research Center in the Galapagos Islands.
With a degree of American arrogance and intellectual superiority, Schuyler sets out to save a near-extinct species of giant tortoise. To fill the space between her work and cultural adaptation, she has a cookie-cutter cast of characters to interact with.
Take Carlos (David Grillo), the refreshingly un-flaming gay second-in-command. Or Malcolm (Donald Grody), the resident-aged eccentric and renowned scientist who, by the by, happens to be Schuyler’s father (unbeknownst to her). Toss in Ana (the feisty but controlled Shirley Roeca), a saucy secretary with a bitter edge and Gonzalo (Al D. Rodriguez), the Mr. Fix-It.
Sound like the formula for a mid-season replacement on the WB?
When Schuyler gets a tip from Gonzalo about some shady dealings at the island’s docks, she uncovers a fatal moneymaking scheme. Local fishermen have been coaxing underwater organisms called sea cucumbers to the surface to kill and sell them as natural solutions to male impotence.
The good doctor declares war on the fisherman, closing the fishing season and setting strict limits on the number of sea cucumbers extracted per year.
The impoverished natives then descend upon Schuyler and her preservationist politics, boxing her and the only friends she’s come to know within the Darwin Center until their demands for fishing freedom are met.
The show looks like a potboiler on paper, yet its resume proves of no use when the lights go down. Hollinger touches on several major societal tones in this work: politics and the environment, the socioeconomic relationships that race constructs and, most dramatically, survival of the individual.
The acting, for the most part, is rigid and over-trained, every syllable protected as if it were scripture. This has the effect of dragging down the quality of the whole production.
“Tooth and Claw” is, if nothing else, a work of great control. A constant sense of discontent replaces the scientific wind that could have lent the production the clout to make it all believable beyond a premise for Must See TV!
Put this one back in the incubator. Perhaps more adaptation to the spiritual demands of an audience will help “Tooth and Claw” evolve and survive.
Matt Donnelly can be reached at email@example.com