Eric Simonson is clearly into mousetraps. His play Honest, which had a run this summer as part of Steppenwolf Theatre’s First Look Repertory of New Work, gives us Gus, a smooth operator who’s written a best-selling memoir of his harrowing—and entirely fabricated—experience with addiction, homelessness, and the radical environmentalist underground. When a reporter arrives to confront him about inconsistencies in the book, Gus plays the poor guy so mercilessly that he ends up handing over his integrity to advance Gus’s fraud, and getting bubkes in return.
Now there’s Fake, another new Simonson script, receiving a strong premiere production on Steppenwolf’s main stage. There are not one but two mousetraps here—and more than that, if you count subsidiary gambits.
Fake revolves around the real-life Piltdown Man hoax, next to which Gus’s memoir is a laughably crude little fib. In 1912, an amateur English paleontologist named Charles Dawson allegedly found ancient bone fragments at a gravel pit in Sussex. Reassembled by Arthur Woodward of London’s Natural History Museum, they yielded a skull that was touted as belonging to the Missing Link—the hypothetical creature that was supposed to fill in the evolutionary blank spot between apes and modern man. There was plenty of controversy over the authenticity of the find, but nobody could authoritatively debunk it until 1953, when J.S. Weiner, Kenneth Oakley, and others subjected the fragments to the advanced tests of the day. As it turned out, Piltdown Man had the cranium of a medieval-vintage human, the filed-down teeth of a chimp, and the jaw of an orangutan.
Simonson’s first act is set in 1914, just before the start of World War I (Piltdown had political implications because it supposedly put English paleontologists—and claims to being the cradle of civilization—ahead of the Germans and the French), when exposure was a long way off. The excitable, eccentric author Arthur Conan Doyle—who championed the existence of fairies but disparaged the Sussex find—has invited Dawson, Woodward, and another Piltdown apologist, the French Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, to his estate. There they meet a tough-talking American journalist named Rebecca Eastman, whom Doyle has brought in to get to the bottom of things. Maybe. The situation reeks of old-style murder-mystery set pieces—the kind you find in Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap itself. Indeed, Dawson demands to know “why we’ve all been asked here tonight.” And Doyle does have something carefully planned up his sleeve. “One of the three of you,” he tells his pro-Piltdown guests, “is a fraud.”
Act two jumps to 1953. Doug Arnt and Jonathan Cole (basically Weiner and Oakley, but with juicier sex lives than the historical record supplies) are busy testing the famous skull but still have time for a romantic triangle involving Katarina, Cole’s Lithuanian fiancee—a former student who admits to having run a little game on Cole to win what might more accurately be called his affectionate attention than his love. In the Kat competition, Arnt has youth, charm, and apparent sincerity on his side—Cole calls him a “sunshine boy from sunny LA”—but the world-weary Cole operates on another level of sophistication entirely. His mousetrap is the subtlest and its object the most surprising of all.
For all its maneuverings, manipulations, and hidden agendas, Fake is more than a clockwork entertainment. Simonson uses the Piltdown Man fraud to set intellectual as well as theatrical mousetraps, opening up discussions about religion and science, God, history, nationalism, human nature, the politics of proof, and crucially, how we know what we think we know. One of the play’s pleasures is its expansiveness: Simonson doesn’t limit the scope of the conversation to conform to some bottom-line notion of what the play is about, and he’s refreshingly willing to let unresolvable questions stay unresolved. Equally important, he grounds ideas in human reality. A passage in which Cole, a widower, sorts through family photographs, at once determined to throw away what no longer applies and overwhelmed by the task, says loads about the limits of scientific dispassion.
As director, Simonson is incredibly fortunate in his cast—especially when it comes to Francis Guinan, who confirmed himself as a great character actor in Steppenwolf’s original production of August: Osage County, and crosses over into a peculiar sort of leading man role here, doubling up as both Doyle and Cole. His Cole, in particular, is a masterpiece of quiet complexity—a portrait, novelistic in its richness, of a reserved, methodical, intelligent man caught up in profound grief.