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Keith Reddin and Susan Greenhill in "The Problem"
(Photo © James Leynse)
Strictly Academic, a pair of academically themed one-act plays by A.R. Gurney, comes very close to a failing grade. Directed by Paul Benedict, the production is well paced and pleasantly performed but the material itself is lacking.

The first piece, "The Problem," is both shorter and more promising than the second. A husband (Keith Reddin) is in his study preparing his lesson plan for an upcoming mathematics class. His wife (Susan Greenhill) enters, visibly pregnant. This is the first of a series of "problems" that the seemingly normal, white, middle-class couple must work through; questionable paternity, racial fetishization, and deep, dark secrets are brought to light. At its best, the brief play functions as a biting satire on white desire for the racial Other. It's revealed at one point that the husband dresses in blackface in order to make love to his wife in the guise of a black man -- which, he knows, is what she desires. Gurney's writing is deliciously funny as the absurd deception is revealed. "Remember how you like subdued lighting," the husband reasons. "Remember, too, that I played Othello in high school."

As the two characters continue their discussion -- all the while speaking in calm, reasonable tones -- the plot grows ever more ludicrous. A final twist in the plot logically resolves the situation while robbing the piece of its satirical bite; it's too pat and it reduces the play to the level of a cute domestic comedy, when it could have been more.

Remy Auberjonois and Susan Greenhill
in "The Guest Lecturer"
(Photo © James Leynse)
The second piece of the program, "The Guest Lecturer," follows fast on the heels of the first. In lieu of an intermission, a woman named Pat (Amy Southerland) plays a medley of show tunes on the piano as stagehands change James Noone's sets from that of a suburban family home to that of a small theater -- of course, using elements of the tiny Primary Stages theater itself. In the play, a young graduate student named Hartley (Remy Auberjonois) arrives to give a guest lecture on the future of American drama. The theater's artistic director, Mona (Greenhill), is the moderator of the discussion but keeps hinting at a mysterious secret relating to murder, cannibalism, and the fates of previous guest lecturers.

The plot unfolds in predictable fashion and is resolved pretty much as expected. To say more wouldn't exactly be ruining a surprise, but you can probably work it out for yourself. Since the piece is also intended as a paean to the power of the theater, its shortcomings are particularly disappointing. The play fails to deliver even as a satire of community theater and academia; in sum, it's a mildly amusing divertissement.

The actors in both plays do an admirable job of keeping things lively. Reddin and Greenhill are a delightful comic pairing in "The Problem," and Greenhill gets to show off more of her quirky antics in "The Guest Lecturer." Auberjonois is also a treat, and his boyish befuddlement allows the play to at least create a semblance of dramatic tension. In the end, however, the program is unsatisfying. While both pieces dabble in satire, the humor doesn't have the edge it needs to be effective. Gurney is capable of much better, and these two plays seem little more than hastily constructed sketches that have their moments but need some serious reworking to make them viable and engaging as theatrical entertainments.

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