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Writing for CurtainUp NYC Weather
|A CurtainUp Review
The Primary English Class
I didn't see the 1976 production of The Primary English Class, a comedy about a group of immigrants trying to master the language of their new country. But with our city teeming with more immigrants from more places than ever before, it sounded as if it might be an old story made newly relevant.
My hopes have been dashed by the reality. You can't fault the actors for doing their best or Derek McLane for replicating an unnamed New York City high school classroom down to the last dreary detail. But a comedy skit that hardly has enough substance for a hearty snack doesn't lend itself to the full-course theatrical meal director Gerald Gutierrez tries to make of it.
The premise is this: Five immigrants (Italian, French, Chinese, Japanese and German) share the impossible dream of mastering their new country's language in one total immersion. They arrive one by one, their suitcases hinting that they've made a beeline from airport to classroom. Each trots out the stereotypical traits of his country of origin. The Italian (Mark Lotito) has an eye for the ladies; the Frenchman (Charles Stransky) is aggressively French and the German (Kenneth Garner) is compulsively orderly. The Chinese Mrs. Pong (Diane Cheng) and and Japanese Miss Kuzuago (Nami Hirayanagi) are treated as interchangeable "Orientals" by the linguistically and sensitivity challenged Debbie Wastba (Didi Conn) who reigns with supreme ineptitude over this metropolitan Tower of Babel. A Polish-speaking janitor's mop predictably piles absurdity upon an already absurd situation.
True there's a well-intentioned theme underlying the jokey lesson plan: Intolerance is a poor tool for breaking down the wall of miscommunication. However, it gets lost in the actors' valiant attempt to keep audiences from keeping an ear cocked for the ringing of the school's out bell.
At a time when several outstanding plays of recent and better vintage are having a hard time finding homes to accommodate the larger audiences they deserve, the stretched-to-the-limits skit being performed at the Minetta Lane Theatre is more of a mystery than a comedy. Having now done a bit of research on the original production, I can see that my hopes like those of the students enrolled in Debbie Wastba's class were never very realistic. It seems that even at ninety minutes (a merciful half hour less than the current production) critics and audiences found it too long. After just 3 months at the Circle in the Square the class was dismissed. Until this re-opening in the same Greenwich Village neighborhood, the best remembered aspect of the original is that it starred Diane Keaton as the ditzy schoolteacher.
I'm afraid for all the talent invested in this reincarnation, the best to be said for it boils down to three words: They Tried Valiantly!