Brian Dykstra’s Education, briskly directed by Margarett Perry, pushes a lot of hot buttons but the play itself very rarely ignites. And this has nothing to do with the Fire Department’s delay in approving the production’s use of an open flame to burn an American flag, a moment replaced by a rather effective video projection.
This five-character, hour-and-50-minutes play (with one intermission) is set in a small town in Ohio’s Christian heartland where Mick (Wesley T Jones), a biracial (although you’d never know it), high school senior, is in trouble for intending to burn an American flag (one of those tiny paper ones on a wooden stick that cost less than a dollar) as his entry in a school art festival.
Brought before the smugly self-satisfied principal, the biracial Mr. Kirks (Bruce Faulk), Mick must defend his project and, consequently the right of an artist to free expression. Kirks, however, feels it his duty to avoid offending the community, despite his own liberal inclinations, and uses the excuse of Mick’s having brought lighter fluid onto the school property as his legal reason for threatening the boy with suspension.
|Matthew Boston, Wesley T. Jones. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
Mick, however, while initially hesitant, proves to be quite expressive when defending his principles. For some reason, though, the words “First Amendment” never arise, nor do they when a second controversy erupts in the form of an angry poem called “Fuck Poem.” Riddled with vulgar sexual imagery, and written by Mick’s 16-year-old, white girl friend, Bekka (Jane West), it’s performed at a school slam poetry competition, which it wins. Meanwhile, the defiant Mick, picking up a weird hint from Mr. Kirks, goes further than his flag burning enterprise and torches an effigy of Jesus.
|Jane West, Bruce Faulk. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
There’s plenty of potential here for a spirited discussion drama: the play raises issues of free speech, the role of the artist as provocateur and truth-teller, the conflict between the younger and older generations, religious skepticism versus religious piety, small-town restrictions as opposed to big city autonomy, and parental abuse (Bekka is severely beaten by her dad). Dykstra also introduces significant dilemmas of integrity versus compromise, particularly in the case of Kirks, who ends up the victim of his own distorted choices.
|Elizabeth Meadows Rouse, Jane West. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
However, not only is there too much to digest, Dykstra’s overly contrived dramaturgy deprives the issues of characters and situations believable enough to warrant us making more than a shallow investment in their problems. For example, when Bekka’s low-keyed mother, Sandy (Elizabeth Meadows Rouse), interrogates Bekka about her poem, she does so in such tiny increments it’s like squeezing drops of a dried-up tube of Krazy Glue, when all she needs to do is ask to read the damned thing.
|Wesley T. Jones, Jane Marsh. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
Bekka, for her part, is a poet-performer who can be as outspoken as any radical dragon-slayer but when her mother meets with Mick’s white uncle and guardian, Gordon (Matthew Boston), a law professor, Bekka cowers silently to one side as her mother, offended by Mick’s blasphemy, insists that Gordon break off Mick’s relationship with her daughter.
And, oddly, Sandy’s objections to Mick are purely on the grounds of his art, not his race, something this production’s casting makes it impossible not to ponder. Why Mick and Gordon aren't the same race (it doesn't matter which but would have been more interesting if both were black) is unexplained and more a red herring than a dramatic necessity.
|Matthew Boston, Bruce Faulk. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
The very idea of having Mick’s uncle serve as the play’s voice of liberal reason likewise smells fishy, especially when—as very well played by Boston—he skewers his opposites’ belief systems and even their word choices with smarmy, know-it-all superiority. In other words, there’s a feeling of schematic contrivance behind every scene and debate, with the characters more strawmen and women than human beings.
|Bruce Faulk. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
Even the tragic events that led Gordon to care for Michael, his late brother’s child, seem unnecessarily melodramatic. Similarly, the threats that Mr. Kirks makes against the students to control the controversy lack credibility as does the capper that reveals Mr. Kirks’s fate. It’s hard to avoid the sense of playwriting by numbers that pervades the script.
|Jane Marsh, Wesley T. Jones. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
There’s also the problem of the flag burning. Why is this considered a significant artistic statement in 2018 when the heyday of First Amendment arguments over such actions was the late 60s, and when the Supreme Court has made the subject moot? Even Mick’s more radical act of burning the effigy—albeit as an attack not on religion but on capitalism—has its predecessors.
The acting is suitably realistic and engaging, with Boston’s cockily intelligent Gordon making the strongest impression. And, while neither Jones nor West makes a convincing high school student, both put their hearts on the line to portray their characters.
Education is performed in a setting by David Arsenault (who also did the lighting) that remains essentially the same throughout: a reddish surrounding wall with faded poster-like images of American radicalism, including peace-signs. A large, white, unnecessarily eye-catching Rubik’s Cube-like structure at center divides the stage into two—office space at our right, living room at our left.
The cube, which reveals entranceways when needed, serves as background for helpful but uncredited video projections, presumably the work of Arsenault. The night I went, however, the projections were occasionally stymied by tech problems. And Amanda Aiken’s everyday costumes, while generally acceptable, raise the question of why neither Mick nor Bekka, for all their arty pretensions, look so ordinary when you’d think they’d be a bit more edgy-looking.
It’s always stimulating to hear dramatic characters dispute significant concerns with red-blooded rhetoric but it’s much better when the drama surrounding those concerns is embodied by three-dimensional persons in believably coherent circumstances. That doesn’t happen here, though, and Education fails to teach us much we don’t already know.
59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through April 8
“What Did the Folks Next to Me Think?”
Unlike me, my plus-one, a retired theatre professor, was quite excited by the show’s ideas, but recognized that the script had problems. His assessment was to divide content with execution in an A+/D- grade.