Lanford Wilson's The Mound Builders, now at the Theatre at Muddy's, exposes the murky side of scientific inquiry. Even professors of archaeology, we learn, can be despicable and put their egos before the well-being of others. It's a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.

Somebody really does have to do it, because from archaeology we learn about the human race in all its diversity. Wilson's archaeologists may be petty, mean-spirited and conceited, but the work they do matters. Unfortunately, it doesn't matter to the self-despising plebeians who own the land that Wilson's characters are digging up. And it really doesn't seem to matter enough to Wilson, either. As a philosopher, Wilson is no great genius, and the cynicism that surfaces in Mound Builders is itself petty and mean-spirited.

Professor August Howe tells the story, revealing the events that led to the decimation of a valuable archaeological site he considered the culmination of his life's work. Wilson never allows you to empathize too much with Howe or his colleagues, Howe's wife, Cynthia, and professor Dan Loggins: They bring on a disaster and then pay dearly for their indiscretions.

The archaeologists, along with the Howes' eleven-year-old daughter, Kirsten, and Dan's wife, Jean, arrive at Blue Shoals, Illinois, to work on a dig they began the year before. So far, they've found the remains of a few men whose right hands had been cut off before burial. During the course of the play, they find the burial site of a god-king complete with fantastic gold and copper ornaments and a fabulous mask.

Jean Loggins is a doctor on leave, oddly secretive about her pregnancy. When August's invalid sister, Delia, arrives to recover from a recent hospital stay involving cirrhosis of the liver, the family tensions mount, but Jean and Delia bond on the spot. Delia is a writer who isn't dealing well with the loss of her creative powers. Jean is afraid of losing her baby. The two of them are the only remotely sympathetic characters in the play, though neither has much insight about her troubles.

Meanwhile, Cynthia is carrying on an affair with the landlord, a local cretin with an inferiority complex and a taste for brute force. Chad the landlord likes to get drunk and fish with Dan, whom he saved from drowning the summer before. But he wants to take Dan's wife, too--and Wilson never bothers to tell us why. Chad also wants the large sums of money he will make when--if--a highway goes through on his property, right over the archaeological site.

The confrontation over the site's future arrives near the end of this long play. And the nasty archaeologists dash the dreams of the even nastier would-be entrepreneur. You can't call all these lost lives tragic, because most of these people are such worms. None of them seems half as dignified as the cannibal princes whose graves they are robbing. Wilson has the same problem so many other contemporary playwrights have--they're stuck with the legacy of existentialism's absurd universe without the guts or integrity of the original existentialists.

Curt Pesicka plays August in perpetual petulance. Angie Lee's Cynthia Howe is likewise consistently ticked off, though she allows a glimmer of human concern to surface now and again. Christopher Reber gives Dan plenty of vitality, but it's hard to believe his Dan is the sort of man who'd spend innumerable hours flicking dirt off of ancient tools. Martha Greenberg does the best with this two-dimensional material, injecting genuine life into her dissolute Delia. Matt Cohen masterfully makes your flesh crawl as the sociopathic Chad. And Paula M. Harvey projects intelligence and class as Jean Loggins.

Director Jeremy Cole gets the most out of this dated material (the play reeks of mid-Seventies intellectual pretensions) and succeeds in creating an unrelenting pace that keeps the viewer involved in the action. But once the action is over, the viewer is left with very little.

The talented Cole tends to take shallow little plays and invest them with so much of himself that they can sparkle (remember last year's Baltimore Waltz and The Lady and the Clarinet?). Think what he might be able to give us if he turned all that talent on a really good play.

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