Theatre ReviewsTom Williams


Written & Directed by Eric Simonson


At Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre

Fascinating world premiere cast a shadow on the “Piltdown Man” mystery

Playwright Eric Simonson’s fascinating new work, Fake, rekindles the controversy and the impact of the discovery of the infamous “Piltdown Man” thought to be the missing  link between ape and man.  Simonson’s play moves between 1914 and 1953 as it investigates  how the “Piltdown” scull rattled assumptions about evolution, faith and science as well as national pride.  It also deftly deals with how we are transformed by our quest for truth.


In 1914, renowned mystery writer and spiritualist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (drolly played by Francis Guinan) invites four guests to his English country home (dazzling set design by Todd Rosenthal).  Each guest has a connection to the controversial “Piltdown Man.” We meet Father De Chardin (Coburn Goss)–the Jesuit theologian and anthropologist who wrote extensively how evolution and Christianity can co-exist. De Chardin help with the discovery of “Piltdown Man.”  Next, Arthur Woodward(Alan Wilder)–the head of the British Museum that houses the “Piltdown” and Charles Dawson (Larry Yando)  –the flamboyant amateur anthropologist who personally found the “Piltdown Man.”   Finishing the guest list was Rebecca Eastman (KateArrington)–the famed American investigative newspaper report and feminist. Doyle doubts the authenticity of “Piltdown Man” and he cajoles Eastman into investigating the source folks.


The play moves to 1953 where we find Jonathan Cole (Francis Guinan) an anthropologist and British Museum member as he agonizing over a visit by American scientist Doug Arnt (Coburn Goss) and his new carbon dating machine that can easily check the authenticity of “Piltdown.” Will the mystery finally be resolved?

I was fascinated by the early scenes and the speeches about evolution and the debate between faith and science. The egos and belief systems of each character is nicely woven into truthful performances. I would have preferred more scenes from Doyle and de Chardin exploring  man’s curious nature and his need to investigate his world. More could also have been developed about Eastman’s investigation and Doyle’s reaction. I also bewildered why Simonson needed to have a love relationship by characters in the 1953 world?


I believe Fake is a fascinating work filled with large ideas and themes that need further exploration. Once the mystery elements are introduced, there needs to be a clear resolution. Who was responsible for the hoax–Doyle or Dawson and why did they or he do it? Fake comes close but I’d advise dropping the relationship scenes in favor of a clear look at solving the mystery more satisfactorily. Fake is a reasonably interesting work, well acted, that could become a genuine excellent play with a tighter focus and some changes.


Tom Williams

At Steppenwolf  Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, IL, call 312-335-1650,, tickets 420 -$70, Tuesdays thru Sundays at 7;30, Saturday& Sunday matinees at 3 pm, Wednesday matinees at 2 pm, running time is 2 hours, 30 minutes with intermission.

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