The Ruby Theatre at The Complex in Hollywood, CA, has a nice, underrated gem to be mightily proud of with Matt Chait’s “A Misunderstanding,” a Rubidor-Productions world premiere that explores how worldviews can conflict, often with reputations and livelihoods at stake. In this case, the conflict emanates from an understanding, or misunderstanding, of Darwinian evolution, reality, and our origins.
As playwright and actor — and in collaboration with director Elina de Santos — Chait wrestles with the notion that, despite the limitations of what is deemed to be acceptable or politically correct, certain voices deserve to be heard — presupposing an open mind and especially when what is posited might be conducive to a balanced and sensible discussion. Scheduled to run through February 3rd, “A Misunderstanding” details the fallout of when a University of California biology professor, Bertram Cates, portrayed by Chait, is unceremoniously let go from his position for imparting his spiritual views to his students. The time is now three years later, and Cates is the plaintiff against the head of the biology department, Joshua Brownstein (played by Bruce Katzman), who represents the UC Board of Regents. With the goal of a potential compromise, the two engage in compelling courtroom debates, with Brownstein insisting on the hard facts of evolution and Cates proffering insights into the scope of life and reality that perhaps transcend our current knowledge.
Caught in the social and political fray are also Brownstein’s daughter Melinda (Amy-Helene Carlson) and her fiancé, graduate student Howard Blair (Dennis Renard), soon revealed to be a mentee of Cates,’ which of course leads to strife between the couple. Suffice it to say, Chait, Katzman, Carlson, and Renard are purposeful and splendidly naturalistic in their depictions, so much so that attendees feel like they’re living the plot, moment by moment, along with the actors.
Director Elina de Santos is excellent at using her four performers to maximum effect, emphasizing the nuances of perspective and compelling the audience to deeply ponder the implications of the subject material. The no-frills set design by Todd Faux, the appropriately modest sound design by Ross Chait, and the well-illuminated lighting design by Leigh Allen put the focus on the stage and its enthralling narrative – as it should be.
Chait, an original student of Sanford Meisner and with more than 100 stage credits to his name, has penned a production that is exceedingly well-researched and is very much for the inquisitive-minded. “A Misunderstanding” is unlike most plays in that it demands the viewer to release pre-existing biases and become immersed in the scholarly and stimulating dialogue. Certainly, the passionate manner in which Chait plays the role of Cates, who has impressive rhetorical chops, invites listeners to consider, for instance, the concept of the self. In other words, are we one and the same with the senses derived from our nervous system, or are we that which experiences sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch through these bodily devices? In addition, what if consciousness is the first cause and not an extrapolation of evolution? Assuming this to be true, then one could argue that intention and desire fuel the engine of consciousness, and by virtue of that, an ability to create something that is ordered as opposed to an outcome of random molecular collisions. These complex notions and more are seamlessly conveyed by Chait’s Cates insofar that we are apt to contemplate them in making sense of ourselves amid the grander picture of existence.
To audience members, Bruce Katzman’s Brownstein is either the voice of reason or he is the narrow-minded antagonist. Katzman straddles this line effortlessly in the courtroom debates, and becomes more and more likable as the play goes on — a credit to his talent in evincing his persona’s transformation in becoming less obstinate in listening to views that clash with his own. Though it isn’t obvious at first, Brownstein is a courageous character, who finds his humility as an individual and as a father.
Melinda Brownstein is a daughter who is entangled in the quagmire of being both loyal to her father, and her fiancée, Howard, who reveals to have been deceptive in his allegiance to Cates. Amy Helene-Carlson is superb at communicating her hurt feelings to Howard, while also exhibiting a willingness to forgive his duplicity for the sake of their love. Dennis Renard is contrite as Howard, yet we also understand his position of defending his mentor who taught Howard to pursue scientific inquiries with a non-partisan flexibility that is commonly shunned at universities. Renard is particularly captivating during his fervent monologues, like when he sheds light on the fact that, regardless of how convinced academics at any point in history have been about what is “true,” nothing is truly “settled science,” so why should evolution, as we define it today, be?
Overall, whether or not one agrees with the arguments and reasoning made in “A Misunderstanding,” it should perhaps be universally agreed upon that, in a civilized society, both sides of a debate are entitled to being heard without fear of judgment or reprisal. “A Misunderstanding” is an intellectually and philosophically provocative play that makes a cogent case for why science and faith can co-exist in our ever-growing conception of our world and the life that comprises it — which is apt to yield more abstractions and questions than definitive answers.
To purchase tickets to “A Misunderstanding,” please call (323) 960-4418 or visit plays411.com/misunderstanding. Enter promo code SEEKER for 50% off tickets. The Complex is located at 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, CA 90038