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Fern Siegel

Fern Siegel

Posted March 20, 2009 | 12:48 AM (EST)

Stage Door: Two Men of Florence, Our Town


The clash between science and religion is never ending. When Obama signed his stem-cell bill, religious fundamentalists and conservative commentators cried foul. When Galileo, the 17th-century physicist trumpeted Copernicus' theory - the Earth revolved around the sun - the Catholic Church, which embraced the opposite view, spun out of orbit.

To question God was heresy. That colossal fight - reason versus faith - ultimately forced Galileo to recant before the Inquisition. But the mortal combat between Galileo and Pope Urban VIII makes for great theater. Their debate has been ambitiously imagined in Richard Goodwin's Two Men of Florence, now playing at the Boston University Theatre.

The play, which first opened in England, runs through April 5. Two Men may be set in the 17th century, but its thrust is inherently modern. Goodwin calls it "an epic battle for the soul of the world," and his clash of titans is led by two dramatic powerhouses in the Huntington Theatre Company's production. Jay O. Sanders is a passionate Galileo. The inventor of the telescope and microscope, Galileo is also a devout Catholic. The physical laws of nature enthrall him; he sees God's wonders in the stars. Ironically, Pope Urban is more earthbound in his quests. Edward Herrmann's perfectly cast Urban is a shrewd tactician; his appetite for religious supremacy, at all costs, is striking. Initially fascinated by Galileo's work, the Pope comes to fear his influence.

Science is in its infancy, and Galileo makes empirical claims to support his position. But the Pope worries that accepting his thesis will undermine the eternal power of Scripture: "You can discuss Copernicus," he orders, "you just can't believe in him." That declaration is uttered without irony. Galileo struggles to understand the cosmos; the Pope fights to maintain God's omnipotence.

Yet it's precisely the two men's implacability - one committed to science, the other to faith - that makes the play so compelling. A speechwriter and adviser to JFK and LBJ, Goodwin is comfortable tackling big ideas. That he manages to do so with humor, while throwing Aristotle, Copernicus and Kepler into the mix, is impressive.

The power of Two Men of Florence is its ability to translate history into human drama. What could have been an overly didactic effort is instead an exciting piece of theater. There are occasional excesses of exposition, and a few scenes could be trimmed. Still, Galileo's enthusiasm is contagious, and Goodwin has made science sexy. Sanders' role is meaty, and he rises to the occasion. The two leads, backed by a strong supporting cast, are well-served by lively, almost cinematic direction, courtesy of the gifted Edward Hall, while Francis O'Connor's set design fills us with awe. Together, they set the stage, literally, for a riveting battle royal. Truth can be shackled; it cannot be silenced.

With luck, Two Men will wage war again - on a New York stage.

Currently off-Broadway, an intimate production of Thorton Wilder's 1938 play Our Town is happily devoid of the sentimental treacle that affects so many renditions. This round, it's staged in a tiny black box, the Barrow Street Theatre. Eight chairs and two tables constitute a set; the house lights remain on. Actors are dressed in nondescript contemporary garb. Under David Cromer's deft direction, the man who brought us an inspired Adding Machine, the show packs an emotional wallop.

Cromer doubles as actor, playing the role of Stage Manager in an efficient, matter-of-fact manner, whether he's introducing members of the community or sharing wry comments. This Our Town has a quiet dignity, rather than typical folksy charm. Act one introduces us to daily life in 1901 Grover's Corner; the second explores the 1904 courtship and marriage of two teenagers, George (James McMenamin) and Emily (Jennifer Grace.) The third act, set in 1914, is the most revelatory. There's little drama here; Wilder's goal is to underscore the importance of everyday life. Cromer helps us see it anew.

Pre-Post Theater Boston Restaurants: Betty's Wok & Noodle, Legal Sea Foods
Boston theatergoers have several restaurants a few blocks from the Boston University Theatre and Symphony Hall, both on Huntington Avenue. Next to the theater is Betty's Wok & Noodle (250 Huntington Ave.). Designed in a super-mod early '60s style, its sleek interior befits its singular offerings. Boasting a sassy mix of Asian-Latino fusion and a friendly staff, Betty's genius is taking the best from two distinct ethnic traditions. Start with the plum sake mojito, one of Betty's signature cocktails, and sake-glazed Asian-style ribs and sweet-fried plantains appetizers. Then create a customized noodle or rice dish, adding vegetable, shrimp, chicken or beef. Here's the kicker - topped with one of seven sauces - from Cuban Chipotle-Citru to Kung Pao - the entrees establish Betty's as hip, killer cuisine. For seafood lovers, Legal Sea Foods (100 Huntington Ave. in Copley Place Mall) is a must. Just an eight-minute walk to Back Bay's cultural enclave, the 59-year-old family-owned business makes quality a byword; plus, it only serves fish that are seasonal and sustainable. The selection is impressive, and its newest push, the barramundi, native to Australia, is beautifully prepared in a sun dried-tomato crust with citrus risotto tapenade. The service is first-rate, and waiters are as savvy about seafood as they are about wines. The New Orleans-raised chef makes his own Southern bread pudding, too.
Betty's Wok & Noodle, 250 Huntington Ave., Boston
617/424-1950; www.bettyswokandnoodle.com/
Legal Sea Foods, 100 Huntington Ave., Boston
617/266-7775; www.legalseafoods.com/