Wednesday, October 06, 2010

THEATER: Office Hours

Photo/Richard Termine

The once mandatory "Western Tradition" college course, which covers the classics from Homer to Shakespeare, is the subject of A. R. Gurney's Office Hours. Like that class, which taught students to think for themselves about how Plato's musings on evil might apply to a post-Hitler world, or helped them to see how Thucydides's writings on Athens vs. Sparta might be applied to a prideful U.S.'s rivalry with the USSR, Office Hours features a wide array of interesting morsels--most of which are lost in the sprawling distraction of the course itself: ten short vignettes, featuring a total of twenty-eight different students and teachers (played by an ensemble of six actors) in just over eighty minutes. Yes, there's at least one class, student, or teacher that will stand out--that's pretty much how definite college was for most of us--but most of it unaffectedly goes in one ear and out the other.

Gurney's too pat: each scene cleanly relates a canonical author with the office scene. And while his choice to set the action in the late '60s is a wise one--there's a very active, rebellious student population (not to mention, to designer Jessica Pabst's delight, a stylish one)--it goes largely untapped by director Jim Simpson and his cast, save for a few awkward references sexual harassment. Here's a stubbornly straightforward example: Angelina (Katherine Folk-Sullivan), the only Italian-speaking professor in the English department, loves Dante. So much, in fact, that she winds up giving a new teacher, Betsy (Louiza Collins), a first-hand lesson as she carries on an affair with Lenny (John Russo) in front of her. They're the tortured lovers, Paolo and Francesca, and because Gurney knows most of us aren't scholars of The Inferno, he is forced to have Angelina awkwardly explain the connection to us.

The same thing happens again and again: an angry former student, Ross (Tommy Crawford), confronts the teacher (Andy Gershenzon) whose failing mark forced him to go to Vietnam, which is interesting, albeit too much of a hastily drawn to sketch to be convincingly acted. A few moments later, though, another teacher (Turna Mete) walks in--quoting liberally from her lessons, as she is wont to do--and neatly resolves the situation by pointing out that Ross doesn't need to study King Lear: he's already living that life. (To be fair, Gurney's absurd resolution to the scene scores a few points for being ballsy.) These connections aren't just stifling, they feel cheap, especially since these great works have been liberally plundered in far more depth and to far greater effect. Admittedly, Gurney's not pretending to stoop to anything other than comedy--but he's thwarted there, too, since he spends so much of each scene giving a miniature lecture. (For instance, a teacher accuses her student of plagiarizing her essay on Aeschylus, but doesn't mind as their academic trial will resemble that of The Eumenides.)

Do the few outstanding scenes balance an otherwise slight evening of theater? Not entirely. The best--and not incidentally the least modeled of the set--follows a gay professor of St. Augustine who is forced to inform an gay student of his that he fears to be his mentor in anything other than a professional setting, lest he succumb to hormones of his own; it's a surprising, heartfelt scene that reminds us what the Bats--the resident ensemble of actors at the Flea--are capable of doing when the material provides them with the chance to do so. Gurney's Office Hours has tackled the Great Big Ideas, but it has floundered in trying to find them purchase on such tightly scripted comparisons and loosely comic ground.

[N.B. Like it or hate it, Office Hours is a bit of a showcase piece for the Bats, as each actor gets the opportunity to play at least three different characters--though some are harder to tell apart than others. In that fashion, the show actually has two rotating casts of six Bats; this review is based on the performances of the HOMER CAST. The DANTE CAST includes Bjorn Dupaty, Wilton Yeung, Maren Langdon, Holly Chou, Betsy Lippitt, and Raul Sigmund Julia, but otherwise uses the same script and set.]

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