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Thoughtful 'Tooth and Claw' could have more bite

Pity the poor ecologist. He or she often preserves nature by preventing it from taking its course, and the pretzel logic of that position is natural fodder for such playwrights as Michael Hollinger, whose comedy-of-manners-cum-thriller ''Tooth and Claw" is making its local premiere in a solid but unscintillating production by Zeitgeist Stage Company.

Based on events that transpired in the Galapagos in 1995, ''Tooth and Claw" follows the ill-fated tenure of Schuyler Baines (Lisa Morse) at the Darwin Institute, a foundation devoted to saving the species that inspired its namesake's theory of natural selection. Needless to say, however, the economy and the ecology of the Galapagos often go at each other, well, tooth and claw (to quote Tennyson); the indigenous people depend on the indigenous species for their living, after all, and aren't they part of ''nature" too?

The struggle comes to a head over the fate of a particular century-old Galapagos tortoise. Threatened by feral goats and the over-fishing of its food source (the sea cucumber, a supposed aphrodisiac), the ancient reptile becomes a symbol not only of endurance but of its protectors' intransigence, as Schuyler's autocratic style leads to a confrontation with the locals in which ''survival of the fittest" takes on an urgent new meaning.

The playwright's position is a thoughtful one, and it's refreshing to see somebody tweak the armchair assumptions of the PBS and NPR crowd; after ''Tooth and Claw," you'll never look at ''Nature" the same way again. But while Hollinger may be on to some genuine contradictions in environmentalism, his argument isn't all that emotionally convincing. Gringo ecologists may occasionally play God (perhaps to replace the one Darwin erased?), but it's hard not to sympathize with their saving unique species.

At any rate, the author is a long way from giving his thematic concerns compelling dramatic form. From his bright-eyed, frizzy-haired heroine to his guitar-strumming fishermen, he's filled his play with stereotypes, and his brief scenes and constantly shifting locales give the script the thin feel of television rather than drama. And Hollinger's got so much exposition to work through that there's little time left for his characters (aside from superficial spins on their sex lives, or the lack thereof). Thus, as the play shifts into thriller mode, we have too little invested in these people's peril for the action to really grip us.

And alas, the Zeitgeist actors (and director David Miller) don't bring the interpretive chops to bear that might put the material over. As Schuyler, Morse is immediately recognizable as an earnestly crunchy yuppie, but she never shows any real steel, much less growing desperation. Likewise the rest of the cast -- from the lovely Nydia Calon to crusty old Ed Peed -- often coast on the surface of their dialogue rather than create lived-in individuals. There's still the occasional spark (Juan Luis Acevedo and Amar Srivastava supply welcome turns of world-weariness and menace, respectively), but ''Tooth and Claw" needs substantial sharpening before it will draw real blood.

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