The Broadway premiere season is over; now go check out Patricia Buckley off-Broadway in ‘Evolution’

Patricia Buckley in 'Evolution.' (Russ Rowland)
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Now that the season has ended for Broadway premieres, theater-lovers look to smaller stages around town to see what’s going on far from the Great White Way.

The lucky ones will find their way to one of the very smallest stages around—the 50-seat Theater C at 59E59 Theaters—where a one-woman show called Evolution is making a very big impression.

It’s an unusual piece, a blend of character sketches and monologues and performance art, written and performed by Patricia Buckley. She opens the show as Minnie, a young woman suffering from an unspecified illness, who, after trying dozens of pharmaceutical solutions, is having a breakdown.

But Buckley soon changes hats (and glasses, and jackets, and expressions) to become Minnie’s doting mother, her soothingly reassuring nurse, and her over-scheduled but self-assured paleontologist sister Pammy. As she switches back and forth between roles, Buckley pieces together a picture of Minnie’s family history and medical prognosis (albeit a picture that’s far from complete), while at the same time telling an intriguing (yet similarly incomplete) story about the evolution of the whale. How exactly the two intersect is left intentionally open-ended and ambiguous, but it has something to do with adapting, belonging, becoming what we’re meant to be.

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If it all sounds a trifle artsy, rest assured that the deft Buckley rarely gets too pretentious about the whole affair. In fact, most of her performance is a well-observed comedy, as she inhabits her characters with precision. She gets in some good lines as Mother (“These are supposed to be the golden years. More like copper or lead, or one of the baser metals, certainly.”), but she’s sharpest as Pammy, the busy and self-centered scientist who’s finally convinced to pay attention to her sister only when she can view her as one of her evolutionary mysteries. Pammy, forever yakking into her Bluetooth headset and preparing lectures about her mass-market-oriented scientific research (her book about evolution is called Who’s Your Momma), is Buckley’s greatest creation, an incredibly specific character who manages to encompass a wide range of emotions and a deep well of empathy despite her apparent narcissism; she also gets the most laughs.

Buckley is greatly aided by an impressive production, perhaps the most elaborate one Theater C has seen. Jim Findlay’s deceptively simple but versatile set is the perfect backdrop for a series of surprising video projections; lighting (Thomas Dunn) and sound design (Will Pickens) help further the feeling that Evolution is in a much larger space. And Jeffrey Potter-Watts provides a great array of props, from a miniature fridge to a toy car to a Viewmaster, that look like background clutter but actually add depth to the script. Director Michele Chivu keeps the pace brisk in this 80-minute one-act, giving Buckley seconds—or less—to change characters, but slowing down the action for Minnie’s parts, so her more interior, psychologically driven moments can blossom in a more thoughtful way.

If you’re wondering if you recently heard about another off-off-Broadway show about whales, you’re right: And God Created Great Whales, Rinde Eckert’s fascinating 2000 show about a Moby-Dick opera, was revived earlier this year. Aside from the centrality of whales to both shows, though, these two productions don’t have much in common, except that both of them offer an important reminder to theatergoers now that the spotlight is off Broadway for a few months: Sometimes, the most interesting pictures are painted on the smallest canvases.

Evolution is showing at 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th Street. Tickets are $25. Call (212) 279-4200.