In May 2013, the Chicago Board of Education voted to close 49 public schools, an unprecedented and sweeping cut that disproportionately hit poor and minority communities (according to the Chicago Tribune, 87 percent of Chicago Public School students come from low-income families, 91 percent from minority households). Rather than dwelling in statistics and policy specifics, Chicago-based playwright Ike Holter examines the human implications of one school closing in Exit Strategy, his fierce and (uncomfortably) funny new play, now making its New York debut with Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
The story takes place at Tumbldn, a Chicago public high school slated to permanently close at the end of the school year. Assistant principal Ricky Hubble (Ryan Spahn) is charged with breaking the news to the staff. This turn of events comes as no surprise to battle-hardened teachers like Pam (a very salty Deirdre Madigan) and Arnold (Michael Cullen, with crusty authenticity). Even though she's the youngest teacher on staff, Jania (Christina Nieves) has been in this position before at a former school; she advises fellow teacher Luce (Rey Lucas) to start looking for another job. The militant Sadie (Aimé Donna Kelly) wants to organize a protest. Meanwhile, precocious student Donnie (Brandon J. Pierce) hacks the school website and reroutes it to an Indiegogo campaign for school supplies. He convinces Ricky that if he can get the attention of the wider (and whiter) Chicago community, he can save the school. Of course, going viral only gets you so far when Twitter ravenously consumes multiple trending hashtags a day.
With clear eyes, Exit Strategy tackles the well-worn trope of a white superhero flying in to save a disadvantaged minority community (a cliché Holter hilariously sends up with a well-placed reference to the 1995 Michelle Pfeiffer film Dangerous Minds). As the play progresses, we realize just how much the deck is stacked against the kids in this school.
That becomes glaringly obvious during a furious monologue in which Donnie describes asking his teachers for toilet paper from first through eighth grade because the school was too underfunded to stock any in the bathrooms. The magnetic Pierce attacks this speech with the force of a tornado. Cathartically hurling razor sharp observations allowed with a blue streak of expletives, Pierce gives us a clear sense of a character that is hungry, smart, and mostly screwed. No amount of positive thinking is going to change this situation, especially coming from the nervous-in-the-service Ricky.
Spahn easily embodies the rail-thin nebbish of a vice principal whose default emotions are fear and anxiety. "I just want to lay. On the couch. In in in a fetal position eating a big sandwich until I get sick," he says, collapsing into a ball. It's a bit baffling how this hamster of a man turns into a general by the end of the scene. One gets the sense that this drastic character shift would smell awfully fishy with a less convincing performer.
Thankfully, director Kip Fagan has crafted a highly realistic production that never has us questioning if we're really watching an inner-city public school. Set designer Andrew Boyce decorates the teacher's lounge with grimy tiles and ancient appliances. Lighting designer Thom Weaver bathes the set in an unflattering fluorescent glow that obscures whether it is night or day. Costume designer Jessica Pabst presents an attractive array of budget looks (backward cap and hoodie for Donnie; H&M chic for Ricky). Sound designer Daniel Perelstein underscores scene transitions with a schizophrenic mélange of hip-hop and drumline music. We know exactly where we are at all times.
In imagining the complex ecosystem of Tumbldn, Holter occasionally bites off more than he can chew: A subplot about the clandestine relationship between Ricky and Luce feels very real, thanks to the palpable chemistry between Spahn and Lucas, but also undercooked, like a perfunctory gay afterthought. Details of Arnold's alcoholism also seem crammed in as an easy way to deepen his character and explain his bitterness. Holter somewhat undermines the truthfulness of his vision by relying on some tropes of his own.
Still, the overall experience is more illuminating than not and a must-see for anyone who cares about the state of public education in America. And considering that guaranteed access to secondary education is one of the few things every American shares, we should all care, especially when the quality of that education is so disparate.