Saturday, October 29, 2016

90. Review: TWO CLASS ACTS (October 27, 2016)

"Two Class Problems"

Stars range from 5-1.
As the lobby display of posters for plays by A.R. Gurney at the Flea Theater in TriBeCa reveals, the place has been a veritable home away from home for the playwright, who turns 86 on November 1. Thus it makes perfect sense that the Flea’s closing production at its White Street venue, prior to moving several blocks away to upgraded quarters at 20 Thomas Street, is Two Class Acts, a two-play bill offering the world premieres of “Ajax” and “Squash.”

 The plays are offered in a repertory arrangement, so check the schedule closely if you plan to see them. Regrettably, I recommend them more because they’re your last chance to see a Flea offering at this 20-year-old venue (in a 99-year-old building) than for either's intrinsic quality. Surely, appreciation for the distinguished playwright’s contributions over the years played a large role in their selection; while each is entertaining, neither is up to the standards of Gurney’s best work.

Both plays have to do with a classical lit professor’s inappropriate relationship with an idiosyncratic student, although their plots and subjects differ sharply. For “Ajax,” the downstairs space has been transformed by Jason Sherwood into a lecture hall at a state university, with desk-like tables and chairs surrounding a lectern. The audience is assumed to be the students, and the play begins as the attractive young teacher, Ms. Meg Tucker (Olivia Jampol, alternating with Rachel Lin), is inquiring about a student named Adam Feldman, who’s missed the first couple of classes.

Meg, claiming she’s not a professor but an “adjunct instructor” hired to teach a single course on ancient Greek drama, is a would-be actress with a master’s degree, not in classics but in drama. (Reputable college departments don’t ordinarily hire adjuncts with degrees in other fields; we can chalk it up to dramatic license except that it won't be the only time during the evening when some fact checking might have helped.)
Olivia Jampol. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Adam (Chris Tabet, alternating with Ben Lorenz) emerges from amidst the audience/class and reveals himself to be the kind of loud, obnoxious, yet also talented know-it-all, who crops up periodically in any teacher’s classroom. Meg, despite her initial disdain, finds him so fascinating that she not only lets him occupy valuable class time but even to come on to her in front of everyone else. She also agrees to let him substitute a different assignment for the one the rest of the class is doing. This is Adam's adaptation of Sophocles’ Ajax, which Adam interprets in terms of its title character’s being a victim of PTSD. This isn't such a stretch actually, as the Theater of War project, in which both Ajax and Philoctetes played a part, demonstrates. 
Chris Tabet. Photo: Joan Marcus.
As the episodic, hour-long play, using sound-punctuated blackouts, hurtles forward from scene to scene, Meg keeps making rapid costume changes from one stylish outfit to another (not precisely what you’d expect from a low-paid adjunct but, okay, it's dramatic license). Adam’s Ajax gets a highly lauded school production starring Meg as Ajax’s lover, Tecmessa.

Meanwhile, Adam, a perfectionist, continues to fiddle with the play (and with Meg), which is being prepared for a professional New York production, eventually turning it into a play reflecting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and making us wonder about taking that license away). Its pro-Palestinian viewpoint creates a backlash because the school’s administrators fear losing funding from Jewish donors. The fact that Adam himself is Jewish only makes things worse. This dilemma, of course, is rife with dramatic possibilities but it’s far too simplistically dealt with here, and the play dissolves in a whirlpool of improbabilities. 

Jampol and Tabet (both members of the Flea’s young resident company, the Bats) do their enthusiastic best but neither is able to make their characters believable, a problem exacerbated by the difference between their heightened behavior and that of the audience, which is asked to accept the conceit that it shares the same world as the characters.

In “Squash,” yet another student intrudes into the life and psyche of an unwitting classics professor. The time is the 1970s (as the music and clothing quickly reveal) and the professor is a real one, not an adjunct, albeit a year away from tenure. Instead of showing us his first encounter with the troublesome student in a classroom, Gurney places it in a locker room (Trump-free, thank goodness).

The student, Gerald Caskey (Rodney Richardson), who's gay, meets the handsome, Professor Dan Proctor (Dan Amboyer), buff as a Greek god, after watching the latter play squash (a game Dan loves to pontificate about), and confesses that one of the reasons he’s there is to see his naked body. (Rear end alert!) Shocked, the married-with-kids prof abruptly dismisses this sexually challenging interloper.
Dan Amboyer, Rodney Richardson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
When Gerald, receiving a C- for his paper (the class is studying Plato's "Symposium"), meets with Dan about it, thinking it’s a reaction to his locker-room comments, Dan explains that the paper ignored the assignment to compare the Greek concepts of love, agape (universal, unconditional love) and eros (love with a sexual component), instead focusing only on eros. Soon enough, though, agape and eros are battling it out in Dan's own psyche as he begins to take an interest in Gerald, while the latter has taken up squash and is finding happiness in a straight affair with his female squash partner. Of course, Dan’s confusion is causing his marriage to Becky (Nicole Lowrence) to begin sliding away.
Rodney Richardson, Dan Amboyer. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Gurney’s depiction of the fluidity of sexual orientation gets a few laughs but it’s too simplistic and sketchy to be convincing. And we have to take it on faith that Dan would suddenly find himself doubting his masculinity. Yet more dramatic license is required for us to accept Becky's reporting that Dan’s new department head visited their home in order to better learn about the family lives of her faculty, or that Becky called the head to lobby on behalf of Dan’s receiving tenure; the latter, in fact, would be grounds for not granting it at most institutions.

Finally, and it’s a minor point, I’d like to know why Becky, listing Dan’s achievements, says he’s added The Tales of Lady Murasaki to his Great Books course. I assume she means The Tale of Genji, which Lady Murasaki wrote, but it's one more item a fact-checker might have caught.

The performances in “Squash” are polished but not particularly illuminating, and the piece begins to drag well before its court time is up. “Squash” is performed sandwich-style, with the acting area--showing three different locales--running between two opposing sides. All the creative contributions, from Stafford Arima’s direction to Jake DeGroot’s versatile lighting to Sky Switser’s costumes (apart from Meg’s too-fashionable ones in “Ajax”) to Miles Polaski’s sound design, help bolster the plays, but Gurney's’ characters and situations, for all their potential, are too artificial to generate belief.

The new Flea promises to have a space named after A.R. Gurney. Here's hoping it produces the best of this distinguished playwright's work, both past and future. 


The Flea Theater
41 White St., NYC
Through November 14