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A CurtainUp Review
The Film Society
By Elyse Sommer
If you take your seat early at the Adams Memorial Theater you'll be greeted by a barrage of rumbling sounds and a shifting scenario of documentary film footage of South Africa framed by vertical columns and a rotunda inscribed with the names culled from our cultural history. The set in front of the scrim behind which the film unfolds is a simple raked platform with props that in the course of the evening are moved on and off by the actors. Very effective and theatrical.
The situation that serves as the dramatic arc is this: A reform-minded teacher, (David Aaron Baker), invites a black minister to speak at a posh private school's Centennial celebration. The resulting uproar from the parents forces the school administration to make radical moral compromises to stave off bankruptcy. The time is 1970 and what happens in this play could no longer happen. The South African political landscape has changed in ways quite different from what the playwright envisioned. Consequently, 8 years after it was first produced and 26 years after the time in which it takes place The Film Society has evolved into a play with a historically colorful setting within which to explore the more general issues raised. And with playwright Jon Robin Baitz issues are never in short supply. He takes us on a tour of universal political mind styles -- the conservative who wants to preserve the status quo; the reactionary; the chameleon who adapts to change; the idealist-provocateur and would-be hero.
Mr. Baitz has been quoted as saying "What drew me to Williamstown in the first place and why I'm going back this summer is that it provides an opportunity to reconnect to a play that has been sitting dormant and to share it with an audience who is interested and charitable." Is a charitable audience required? Unfortunately, yes--not so much because his play isn't admirable in many ways, but because the stellar production it's been given at Williamstown fails to re-ignite his work's initial spark.
The original production I saw at New York's unprepossessing Second Stage was a far less stylish affair and if memory served me right, the cast lacked the lustrous credentials of the group assembled here. Yet, while many details slipped my mind in the interim between seeing that production and this one, I vividly recall leaving that theater elated at having discovered a new playwright who was both entertaining and stimulating. With its excellent cast and dramaturgy, The Film Society could still exert its power as a one and a half to two-hour play with perhaps a brief epilogue or the kind of post-theater discussion that goes over so big in these parts. At two and a half hours, what should be exhilarating and engaging disappointingly ends up seeming interminable. It's too talky to keep pace with the momentum of the fast-changing scenes, too distant to fully engage the emotions.
The play's strengths still pervade a number of the short scenes that propel its action. One of the more satisfying moments, for example, comes in Act 2 when an ailing schoolmaster, (Tom Bloom), bids his students at the Blenheimm School for Boys in Durban, South Africa goodbye with a lecture on writing an essay. That lecture movingly sums up the end of a life style as well as a life. When he admonishes the boys that they "must not let an inkspot stain the paper" because it "clouds the thought" and warns against putting red ink into a pen that has been used with another color, the metaphor is vivid even though it's obvious. As importantly, that scene manages to capture the audience's sympathy for an essentially unsympathetic character. It is the kind of scene that has made me interested in this playwright ever since I first saw this play.
Baitz has many such swift theme illuminating strokes up his dramatic sleeve. In the scene when Jonathan Balton, (John Benjamin Hickey), the languid, loner-schoolmaster explains the changes dictated by a practical headmaster for whom a protesting but fertile parent represents a source of "at least four more boys." Balton, shoulder-shrugging affability notwithstanding, is transformed into one of life's compromisers. We know beyond a doubt that his admiration of the sudden and unexpected heroism found in films will not extend beyond the screen.
There's also a scene where Tony-award winning Cherry Jones forces her provocateur husband to admit that for all his progressive ideals he is too afraid to leave his boundaries and take a chance on making a new life. Unfortunately, this powerful scene also points to some of the acting weaknesses in the play.
Jones brings genuine passion to the role of Nan Sinclair but, as the character of the husband lacks the strength to be more than a talking idealist, so David Aaron Baker fails to give Terry Sinclair the muscle required of the role. John Benjamin Hickey's Jonathan, their childhood friend and colleague, is amiable and occasionally amusing--but the strongest performances, besides Jones' are those of Carole Shelley as Jonathan's wealthy and manipulative mother and Denis Holmes as Blenheim School's headmaster.
The interchanges between headmaster Sutter and Mrs. Balton and Mrs. Balton and her son offer the only glimmers of the humor that the advance publicity on this production emphasized readers could expect along with the weightier ideas. At its best, that humor is somewhat dark. When Mrs. Balton proposes that Sutter make Jonathan his successor, his "must we negotiate like Jews" and her reference to her accountant "Mr. Schwartz" make one wonder if the compromises that have allowed the British to survive in non-Arpatheid South Africa have made a dent on these colonists' deep rooted anti-semitism. On the whole, the play's humor is drowned out by the shrill talkiness. It's like a soprano backed by a too large and loud orchestra .
To sum up, The Film Society is a play that still has the power to resonate, but unfortunately under Roger Rees' direction does so very intermittently. The real star of the evening is Neil Patel's very dynamic set ably supported by Willa Kim's costumes, Frances Aronson's lighting and Kurt Kellenberger's sound.
As long as we're winding up with the set, keep your eye on that rotunda with the names of the various icons which crumble away along with the supporting Greek columns. The name of Wren, the great church architect disappears completely; the name of Wilberforce who was influential in bringing slavery to an end in England and its colonies and Wellington, who defeated Napoleon, disappear partially.