Tepid ‘Two Men’ pits science vs. faith

Iris Fanger

Urban VIII, pope of the Roman Catholic Church from 1623 to 1644, viewed the world through the glow of candle-lit altars, in contrast to Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), the physicist, philosopher, scientist, who understood the universe by the light of the sun. In that era, the church believed that the Earth stood firm, with the sun revolving around it – God in the heavens above, the devil below. Galileo took an opposing view which led to his condemnation.

Richard Goodwin, former speechwriter for presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, has put his pen to writing about history rather than making it. His play “Two Men of Florence” about the conflict between Galileo and Urban VIII, is running at the Huntington Theatre in a sumptuous production, staged in fluid fashion by British director, Edward Hall. Goodwin has done a diligent and intelligent job of reporting the chronology of Galileo’s life and conflict with the church, but unfortunately he is still writing speeches, not dialogue that brings the main characters to life.

The Huntington has done the playwright proud in the lavish presentation of the work. British designer, Francis O’Connor, has imagined a supple, ever-changing stage, in keeping with the patterns of the heavens that Galileo sees through his telescope, a new instrument in that age.

A turntable brings the characters on and off stage, mimicking the turning of the Earth. Huge, billowing curtains, hung on a circular ceiling rod are opened and closed as the scenes shift locales. They also serve as reflections of the seasons and events, particularly the burnings: a martyr screaming in agony to begin with, and later, Galileo’s papers, after he is tried by the Inquisition.

In the lead roles, Jay O. Sanders as a larger-than-life Galileo and Edward Herrmann as the crafty Cardinal Barberini, later Pope Urban VIII, are superb. Because the play covers more than 20 years, they must age before our eyes, as well as recreate these men of nearly mythical powers.

Herrmann shows us the ambition of the pope and his curiosity with Galileo’s ideas, at least at the start of their relationship. As the pope’s adversary, Sanders is believably superhuman, standing supreme in his work but naïve in trusting that the truth will prevail. The problem is that Herrmann and Sanders never truly forge a relationship because they make speeches to each other instead of talking and listening. We’re hearing the personification of faith versus reason but the ideology drowns it out.

You also wish that the one woman in the cast, Molly Schreiber as Galileo’s daughter, Sister Maria Celeste, showed some grit and gumption. Buffeted on one side by her devotion to God and on the other by her idolization of her father, the character never registers as anything more than a woman whose identity is just a reflection of her two masters.

Equally conspicuous is the absence of a scene depicting Galileo going before the Inquisition, where he stands charged with heresy. We do see the pope turn on Galileo, supposedly after reading his book comparing the theories of Copernicus to those of Aristotle. But that extra scene would have exponentially deepened the drama.

The Patriot Ledger