Funda Duval and Laura Heisler in People Be Heard(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Funda Duval and Laura Heisler in People Be Heard
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Quincy Long's People Be Heard is billed as "a new comedy with songs," but not much about it is funny. On the contrary, it's a muddled, inept, and ultimately spineless play about members of a semi-rural community school board taking on the issue of creationism versus natural selection, as well as schoolyard sexual harassment. But the real question Long's "comedy" raises is: What's it doing on the schedule of a not-for-profit theater outfit that was once regarded as an important home for playwrights with something original to say and a fresh way of saying it?

There's nothing original or fresh in People Be Heard, which has the audacity to bring up the Jerome Lawrence-Robert E. Lee play Inherit the Wind and then cover some of the same territory in a highly diluted manner. This home-y school board includes two members -- born-again Linda Vobiato (Kathy Santen) and good ol' boy Earl Frye (Guy Boyd) -- who want "intelligent design" taught alongside Darwin, and two -- reliable, appeasing Don Mesner (Conrad John Schuck) and bright but testy Jim Schuler (Dashiell Eaves) -- who don't. The deciding fifth vote belongs to Rita Dell Delaney (Funda Duval), a separated mom who's earning her pay as a dancer at the Wiggle Room over in Banyard.

In trying to bone up on the volatile controversy, Rita has her hands full. She has an uncommunicative pre-teen son named Danny (played by Laura Heisler, who also appears as the mousy school-board recording clerk Pam). She also has a menacing husband, Russell (Brian Hutchison), barging in to accuse her of bringing Wiggle Room customers home. But Rita's heart is in the right place. She's determined to better herself, a goal she pursues ardently while sometimes breaking into odd songlets that dramatist Long has written with Michael Roth.

Making a pretense of addressing small-community controversies with gravity, Long introduces a number of complications into the action. He has the sweetly scheming Vobiato woman stack the hall with evangelical students for an open meeting, and he sets up what passes for a pithy debate between a creationist and a Darwinist. To explain why Danny is monosyllabic and given to acquiescent shrugs, Long conjures nightmares about a terminating alien. (During these, cast member Annie Golden dons a Darth Vader-like disguise that costume designer Michelle R. Phillips came up with; lighting designer Michael Lincoln throws green around; there's smoke.) Additionally, Long introduces a character called Bernie Redman (Brian Hutchison again), who believes that the school board has neglected his daughter's molestation by an unidentified student during recess. The playwright also presents Refik (Eaves again), a Turk radiologist who lives next door to Rita and who suddenly becomes a romantic interest for her.

With the many plot knots in place, Long then backs away from all of them. When Rita -- who, for some reason, has performed a bawdy evolution-versus-creationist number at the Wiggle Room -- comes to cast her vote, the explanatory speech that she gives is no surprise. Russell, who's been blasting the kind of threats made by men who get into the headlines by violating injunctions, recognizes his transgressions. Danny faces his fears, which leads to the placation of Bernie Redman. Nothing much comes of the threats that the pro-evolutionist board members have been receiving: cars are vandalized, that sort of thing. In a what-was-he-thinking conclusion, Long has the now-harmonious board members sing an anthem that sells out people across the nation who are currently battling a repressive school board. The words that Long has written for the song, which would be ludicrous if it weren't so shocking, go in part: "Sisters and brothers taking a stand / Fathers and mothers all over this land / Doing for others, we're your school board." It's amazing that this drivel be heard at Playwrights Horizons, where Stephen Sondheim, William Finn, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, and others of their like have labored so creatively.

What keeps People Be Heard from being a total disaster is the cast, which brings verisimilitude to the stock, stacked characters. These gallants are responsible for whatever genuine laughs the play elicits. Duval, whose traffic-stopping body is gratuitously and full-frontally flaunted at one point, makes entirely credible Rita's mix of disillusionment and naiveté. The other school board members -- Schuck, Boyd, Eaves, and especially Santen as a villain with a lethal nice-lady smile -- act like believable folks. Heisler's mousy Pam and timid Danny are winning. And a medal should also be pinned on Annie Golden, one of the Manhattan's unsung janes-of-all-trades. Golden is funny-sad in five roles -- six, if you count her as Ekaraxu. Alien get-up isn't the only ignominy that this actress suffers here; she also appears as Mother Wit in Rita's vote-deciding reverie. During this sequence, she wears a blonde Shirley Temple wig with the scales of justice attached. But does Golden lose her perpetual, lovable, cock-eyed dignity? Not a bit of it.

Director Erica Schmidt earns some credit for the ensemble playing but gets demerits for not toning down Brian Hutchison's gesticulating Bernie Redman. Choreographer Peter Pucci receives a dubious-achievement nod for having to stage Rita's school-board tabletop strip and -- get this, terpsichore lovers! -- a square dance that turns into a Sufi spin. What is this turn supposed to tell us about Refik's influence on Rita? Only the playwright knows for sure.

In one of the inexplicable, inexcusable songs that Long has slipped into his script, Rita ruminatively croons to Danny that "I ain't the leader...I am the led." She omits to say that, in People Be Heard, she is also one of the leaden.