Heavenly spheres of varying sizes dangle in ghostly light above the tiny stage where F. Murray Abraham is having some fun at the expense of the astronomer Galileo.
It’s impossible to tell whether those old globes are planets, moons or stars. They do, however, make us feel small in the universe.
Galileo is a scientist in a burgeoning age -- the early 17th century -- when science and religion were often at odds with each other. That could be any age, of course, not least of all our own, when politicians touting medieval religious beliefs can still be taken seriously as candidates for the presidency.
Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo passes off a crude Dutch telescope as his own invention to ingratiate himself with the merchant classes and underwrite his research. Not to mention preserve a relatively cushy lifestyle for himself and his beloved daughter Virginia.
When his heliocentric view of the universe is labeled heresy by the Grand Inquisitor, he recants rather than risk torture. His own servant, feeling betrayed, admonishes him, saying “Pity the nation that breeds no hero.”
Galileo pointedly replies, “Pity the nation that needs a hero.” He has no interest in the hair shirt. Still, he continues his research in secret, recording his findings for posterity.
Abraham, usually an intense stage presence, here plays the scientist as wry, almost wistful, winking us into his confidence. It doesn’t work. It’s distancing, though I doubt in the way Brecht intended.
The moment of highest tension comes when the Pope orders the Grand Inquisitor not to torture Galileo, but merely to “show him the instruments.”
At a critics’ preview after several weeks of performances, Abraham still wasn’t altogether certain of his lines. But there are especially good supporting performances from Aaron Himelstein, as the Little Monk, and Nick Westrate as Virginia’s turncoat suitor.
Brian Kulick’s staging has lots of eye candy provided by Adrianne Lobel’s outer-spacey setting. The globes are grounded by the compass setting on the Classic Stage Company’s handkerchief-size stage, all carefully and exquisitely lit by Justin Townsend. The center, however, doesn’t quite hold.
Through March 18 at 136 E. 13th St. Information: +1-212-352-3101; http://www.classicstage.org.
What the Stars Mean: **** Do Not Miss *** Excellent ** Good * So-So (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)