Nobody actually kicks the bucket in Steven Drukman's new play, Death of the Author — at least nobody we actually meet. Given that this academia-set misfire spirals and pirouettes around the question of authorship, authenticity, and whether an "original text" can actually exist, Drukman's title is supposed to be metaphorical. The play itself is stuffed to bursting with the clash of literalness vs. symbolism, both of which are heavily underlined throughout the course of this 95-minute exercise.
Our setting is "one of the finest universities in the country" where Jeff (David Clayton Rodgers) is earning a crappy paycheck as an adjunct professor. His office is a windowless former storage closet, the explicit meanness of which allows set designer Takeshi Kata to keep things sparse. Into this office, Jeff has summoned Bradley (Austin Butler), a law school-bound blue blood who speaks with the sweet, measured cadence of a surfer dude. Bradley is less than a week away from graduation and a cushy job, but there's a problem. Bradley's final paper has taken passages from a veritable boatload of literary sources without proper acknowledgement or citation. The inquiry instigated by Professor Jeff begins with a discussion in which he, as the accuser, dances around the accusation. When Bradley, who professes to greatly admire his teacher, finally learns that he is suspected of plagiarism, he has a full-out panic attack. If found guilty, Bradley could fail the course, not graduate or, worse, have this incident become part of his permanent record.
Step two of the inquiry involves a meeting with the chair of the English department, a celebrated literary lion named J. Trumbull Sykes (Orson Bean), a mentor of Jeff's who got him the job and is trying to help him move up the ranks. Upon reading Bradley's paper, Sykes determines that not only has Bradley cribbed even more than Jeff realized, the kid has structured the paper in such a way that the essay is essentially a masterful example of post-modernism parody. By the university's definition, however, it's still plagiarism, which means if Bradley wants to continue the fight, he'll have to take it to the Dean. Stepping into this breach is Bradley's ex-girlfriend Sarah (Lyndon Smith), herself an English major who idolizes Sykes and who might be able to help Bradley get himself out of this mess and ultimately, clear his name.
The stakes are artificially high and Drukman works his way out of any briars via a squishy resolution. What he does leave is ample space for back story and character layering, particularly where Jeff and Bradley are concerned. Bradley is not, at his core, a contentious kid, and there are strong reasons why he doesn't want red flags on his transcripts. While Jeff rather tellingly admits to Sykes, "I don't like rich people." Death may be a brainy play intended for brainy audiences, but that's only the case if we have a plot and characters whose fates matter.
Not helping matters is the cast charged with bringing this endeavor to life. Rogers makes for a largely bloodless protagonist as the crusading English professor, and Bean — while certainly amusing — seems to have a precarious hold over his portrayal of the knowing senior professor. Bean's Sykes has a slushy voice and the endearment "darling" does not fall easily from the man's lips. The actor seems to be having a high old time, but Bean also seems to be racing to get out those lines before he forgets them. Somewhat surprisingly, Butler proves to be the production's wild card. While there are certain things that we, as audience, suspect can't possibly be true about Bradley, Butler's strategic shrewdness suggests that there may yet be a tiger shark swimming underneath this preppy exterior.
In this production, directed by Bart DeLorenzo, the engine driving Rogers' un-tweedy young professor never seems consistent, and his 11th-hour effort to turn the tables on Bradley (which is already contrived) feels forced.
Death of the Author holds out the potential of a high-stakes battle over something far more important than a kid getting a D+ or an F on his English paper. Once Drukman goes for his "everybody wins" resolution, however, the play cops out. Ivy-covered halls may make for prime drama, but brambles are considerably more fun.