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Tedious creationism tale fails to fully evolve

SOMERVILLE -- Few subjects are as ripe for parody as the kind of ''values-based education" sweeping America's red states. But ''Dead White Males," an attempt at schoolroom satire by William Missouri Downs, fizzles in a production at the Theatre Cooperative.

The script -- written in the late '90s when, briefly, Kansas proscribed teachers from presenting the theory of evolution -- dithers on for 2¼ hours in a state of schizophrenia. Does it want to be farce or tragedy? Are the characters caricatures, or are we meant to take them at face value? And if so, what are we to make of a protagonist, starry-eyed tyro middle school teacher Janet Greenberg (valiant Susan Gross), dressed up like ''Our Miss Brooks"?

The script takes a solid hour to get around to the core issue: the school board's requirement that a veteran science teacher (Maureen Adduci, in a performance of odds-defying depth and integrity) give equal time to creationism.

Meanwhile, we've endured a tedious pastiche of shtick: Master teacher Burns (one-note Cheryl D. Singleton) nattering on about the importance of heeding ''goldenrod" memos; a toady of a principal (Josh Pritchard) jovially emphasizing the ''pal" in his title; board president Dr. Ozy Mandias -- now there's a clever name! -- smoldering over secular-humanist affronts and moonlighting as an Amway huckster. (The latter role is played by Peter Brown, a real-life teacher whose resemblance to a louche Peter O'Toole doesn't lend itself to playing a rabid right-winger.) A subplot concerns the administration's efforts to bowdlerize Sondheim's ''Company" into fit fare for a middle school musical.

It's a sign of the play's essential wrongheadedness that the principal's pedophiliac extracurricular activities are initially presented as a laughing matter; later, ''Johnny" -- the generic (and only) student represented in these proceedings -- acts out the horrific consequences. Spencer S. Christie imbues this token role with a freshness and poignancy that the script, alas, lacks.

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