BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
Although the great scientist Galileo faces the flames of the Inquisition for his theories, Classic Stage Company’s cool rendition of “Galileo” generates surprisingly little emotional heat.
But remember -- that’s just the way that Bertolt Brecht liked to have his plays served to viewers: Cold.
Starring a laidback F. Murray Abraham in the title role, the production is capably acted and handsomely designed to take advantage of Classical Stage’s expansive space, where the show opened Thursday.
Brian Kulick, the director, employs a modestly-trimmed version of the text as translated by actor Charles Laughton, who played Galileo in a short-lived Broadway staging in 1947.
Set in Italy during the early decades of the 1600s, this absorbing character study sees Galileo trying to make ends meet as an inventor until his radical assertion that the earth and other planets move around the sun gets him into dire trouble with the church, which puts him on trial for heresy.
To the dismay of his followers, Galileo recants his theories – “I was afraid of physical pain,” he confesses later to a friend -- but by doing so, survives to pursue his scientific studies in comfortable privacy.
Brecht, a Communist who eluded both the Nazis and the House Un-American Activities Committee during his lifetime, knew too well the terrors of opposing the status quo. His play speaks to the merits of being pragmatic rather than heroic, even though Galileo sorrows how he has betrayed his profession.
Because this thoughtful two-act play is more intellectual than emotional in its intentions, Kulick’s crisp staging appropriately keeps the temperature low. The grizzled, bearded Abraham portrays the ever-sensible Galileo with troubled eyes and an initial vibrancy that turns wearier with the passing years.
Energetic character work is provided by an eight-member ensemble that includes such assured actors as Steven Skybell, Jon DeVries and Steven Rattazzi. Amanda Quaid subtly traces how Galileo’s flowering daughter withers after his notoriety blights her romance with Nick Westrate’s fresh-faced suitor. In the drama’s most striking scene, Robert Dorfman bleakly depicts a liberal-minded Pope whose talk becomes more dogmatic as he is dressed in his oppressive robes of state.
Designer Oana Botez-Ban’s quasi-period costumes add some visual warmth to the play’s many scenes. Set designer Adrianne Lobel spins large spheres into the air or on the sides of the auditorium, with other discs serving as the central platform and as a background screen for projections. Ethereal music and sound design by Christian Frederickson and Ryan Rumery contribute to the production’s effectiveness.
“Galileo” continues through March 18 at Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St., New York. Call (866) 811-4111 or visit www.classicstage.org.