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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Gurney's latest play, Office Hours, was written specifically for six Bats to play twenty-eight characters over the course of ninety minutes. The Flea's artistic director and this world premiere's helmer, has divided the show's run to be played by alternating casts so that it will enable twelve young actors to add a world premiere appearance to their resumes.
Like all of Mr. Gurney's works seen at the Flea, Office Hours is issues oriented and the issues are explored with the usual Gurney blend of humor and serious concern for the country's commitment to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Happiness in the case of Office Hours' 1974 time frame means an educational system that still values the Humanities but has come increasingly under pressure to dumb down the core curriculum in the Humanities to keep enrollment up. A worthy idea, well-directed and staged.
The six actors I saw (the Dante cast, after one of the men taught in that core curriculum, as is the second cast's namesake, Homer), navigate their multiple roles quite expertly. But even at just 90 minutes, a year's worth of episodes about characters who are students or teachers in the humanities course Gurney is championing has a bit too much of the feel of -- well, an endless sermon that doesn't really have anything all that new to say.
Things start off well enough with Homer, the first influential figure on the curriculum. Two of the untenured teachers for whom a required course guarantees a full class and a step forward on the slippery road to tenure. Hal has been handling his assignments successfully for several years, but Tim is insecure about reaching the students with his Homer lectures. Realizing that the whole core course teaching team needs to succeed for it to remain on required course list, Hal amusingly shares his methods of making the ancient Greeks relevant to students more in tune with movies.
Kate Sinclair Foster's set design with its two desks and three doors easing the scene to scene transitions so that the action can shiftfrom the desk of one instructor's office at stage left to that of another at stage right. And so we move on to October and Aeschylus, this time to focus on a student and teacher conflict. In this case the teacher is a dedicated and enthusiastic scholar and the student hostile and aggressively determined to get the passing grade she needs to graduate even though the teacher has caught her red-handed in handing in a plagiarized paper. During another month, another great name, a less hostile student enamored of the classics tells her attractive, flirtatious teacher that her very conventional Republican father is demanding to know what he's paying all this tuition money too. The teacher morphs into a Gay student and eventually a crazed Vietnam veteran who blames his failing grade for having lost him his deferment.
And so, it's onward through the great classic figures, a month at a time. Though each scene is its own mini story, those projected dates at the start of each scene makes it all rather too schematic. Consequently the change in the parenthetical text following the projected title of the course that unifies all the scenes is predictable enough to make you wish this were a a 2010 TV play instead of 1974 live theater piece so that you could get to the end of the semester with a fast forward clicker. Actually, if instead of keeping his play within the confines of the offices of those 1974 teachers Mr. Gurney had somehow connected that time frame with what's happening on campuses across America today, this would have felt less like college drama class re-enacting the drama of a college classics class under siege.