Wilton Yeung and Raul Sigmund Julia in Office Hours
(© Richard Termine)
Wilton Yeung and Raul Sigmund Julia in Office Hours
(© Richard Termine)
Is a firm grasp of the classics necessary for a well-rounded education? That's the question at the heart of A.R. Gurney's world premiere play, Office Hours, at the Flea Theatre. Set on a college campus in the early 1970s when students and faculty alike were beginning to critique a so-called "Great Books" curriculum, Gurney's uneven work is at times thought provoking and at other moments overly simplistic.

The production, directed by Jim Simpson, features two different casts -- all members of the Flea's resident company, The Bats -- who alternate performing the play. I saw the Dante cast, comprised of six actors who in turn play multiple roles within the 10-scene, intermissionless play.

The bulk of the show is reminiscent of a sit-com, going for easy laughs with only occasional flashes of insight. The more intriguing sections, however, are the ones that offer something a little more out of the ordinary. For instance, one of the most powerful segments -- both in writing and performance -- involves Jerry (Raul Sigmund Julia), a gay male student who comes to Richard (Wilton Yeung), a gay male faculty member, looking for a mentor. There's a palpable sexual tension that permeates the interaction, and yet Gurney subverts certain expectations even as he allows for a lingering ambiguity as the characters part.

Another nicely written scene is between faculty member Arlene (Holly Chou) and student Nancy (Maren Langdon), which looks at the definition of evil from both the ancient Greek perspective and the Judeo-Christian one. However, the performance is marred by Chou's use of an over-enunciated, grating vocal manner that is too easy a parody of the snobbish intellectual, and throws the balance of the scene off.

Some of the actors handle their multiple roles better than others. Julia is extremely funny as a flirtatious and sexist professor, and equally effective as a disgruntled former student and Vietnam veteran. Langdon shines as a junior faculty member who has to address the plagiarism of one of her students, and brings a strong emotional connection to the remainder of her parts, as well. The remaining four cast members -- Yeung, Chou, Bjorn Dupaty, and Betsy Lippitt -- have some strong moments, but also ones where they are less effective.

At different points in the play, Gurney acknowledges the critiques of the Great Books curriculum, and particularly its Eurocentric concentration on "Dead White Male" authors. However, his overly sentimental ending signals a lament for these canonical works, which are no longer as central as they once were.