Michael Carbonaro and Jonathan Hogan
in Sophistry
(© Carol Rosegg)
Michael Carbonaro and Jonathan Hogan
in Sophistry
(© Carol Rosegg)
Towards the end of Sophistry, Jonathan Marc Sherman's drama now being given a well-acted revival at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, the playwright's true intentions come into focus. Sorry to say, it's a little late. Worse still, the tardiness is something that could and should have been fixed by now, even if Sherman (or original director Nicholas Martin) didn't realize it when the work was first presented at Playwrights Horizons in 1993, where the cast included such stars-to-be as Calista Flockhart, Ethan Hawke, and Anthony Rapp.

The play, set in a New England college in 1990, initially revolves around the accusation of a Thanksgiving night sexual assault made by inebriated lay-about student Jack Kahn (Michael Carbonaro) against popular tenured professor Whitey McCoy (Jonathan Hogan, who is terrific at portraying character ambiguity). Sherman carefully replays both versions of the night in question so that doubt is sowed in the audience's minds about where the truth lies. Then he follows McCoy and Kahn through the hearing, the disgraced McCoy's ultimate dismissal, and the cover-up engineered by college president Quintana Matheson (Ellen Dolan), an official so determined to appeal to her charges that she welcomes their addressing her by first name - or just "Prez."

Having introduced the ugly episode -- variations of which have since been seen elsewhere in such plays as David Mamet's Oleanna and John Patrick Shanley's Doubt -- Sherman leads the audience to expect a fully-developed, lid-blowing-off probing of the ramifications. Instead, he shunts it aside to study several undergrads tangentially caught up in the embarrassing fracas.

Among them is Xavier Reynolds (Charlie Hewson), known to his drinking and bonging buddies as Ex, his colorful rock-band chums, Willy (Maximilian Osinski) and Igor Konigsberg (Ian Alda), as well as his sudden ex-girlfriend Robin Smith (Natalie Knepp) and her BFF, Debbie (Mahira Kakkar). A golden boy with a lecherous side, Ex testifies in McCoy's behalf but comes a cropper with Smith, who reports for the school newspaper and becomes class valedictorian, and who eventually upholds hallowed-hall standards on which everyone else has loosened their grip.

Ultimately, the scandal recedes until it's only part of what affects the characters' daily lives. We then realize that Sherman's main point is to show -- as accurately as he knew at the time -- the extent that drug use, alcohol, sexual behavior, and general distraction compromised learning at an unfortunately lax teaching institution.

As a result of this theatrical bait-and-switch, the play is now most valuable as a showcase for young actors to market their wares -- and director James Warwick knows how to get the best from his cast. Indeed, the real joy of Sophistry is watching Hewson beg Smith's forgiveness, Knepp corner Dolan, Osinski play stoned cut-up, Alda reveal his pre-graduation fears, Carbanaro expose Jack's loutishness, and Kakkar show how acutely a young woman of easy virtue is on to herself.