Tooth and Claw

Presented by the Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, casting by Mabry/Super Casting, at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, 549 W. 52 St., NYC, April 15-May 9.

One feels playwright Michael Hollinger straining to ensure that plot mirrors science and vice versa in the evolution-themed "Tooth and Claw." Questions of contemporary human evolution mirror the ecosystem today in the Galapagos Islands, making for an overly crammed play that only sometimes rises to the level of satisfying theatre.

Schuyler has come to the Galapagos Islands to assume the directorship of the Charles Darwin Research Center, only to discover that the locals are using the islands as a base to harvest sea cucumbers, threatening the delicate balance of nature there. As this aspect of Hollinger's drama unfolds (with scientific accuracy), Schuyler and her secretary, Ana, clash over the question of abortion versus adoption. One truly feels Hollinger shoehorning themes of natural selection and genetics together when Malcolm, another scientist at the center, admits to being Schuyler's father, and reveals that her mother selected him because she admired his genes.

Director Dave P. Moore uses Hollinger's device of a four-member chorus to give the show a certain theatrical flourish, but he has a difficult time masking the play's ungainliness. The work's combined emphases make it difficult for Gloria Biegler to find her balance as Schuyler, as she is required to switch with lightninglike rapidity from no-nonsense scientist to emotionally confused woman.

While one admires Biegler's efforts, one savors Flora Diaz's portrayal of comedic spitfire Ana. Also effective is Nick Ullett's combination of earthiness and mystical omnipotence as Malcolm. Noel Vélez and Nathan A. Perez, playing other members of the center's staff, balance humanity and scientific distance well. Stepping out from the chorus notably are Sebastian LaCause as a slimy politician and Joaquín Torres as a fisherman passionately defending his livelihood on the islands, which are brought to the stage effectively by scenic designer Jennifer Varbalow and lit handsomely by Jason Byron Teague.