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A CurtainUp Review

Strictly Academic: The Problem & The Guest Lecturer

Eighty-six per cent of our senior citizens are continent! Forty-one percent of the time! Poverty has gone by-bye. Homelessness is a no-no. Welfare is pee-pee, poo-poo, ca-ca. . . Why do you think these things happen? Because this community has had the guts to get together once a year in this theater, and do a little spring cleaning. ---Fred
Ah. You're talking about cathaarthis. . . Aristotle argued that good theater had a 'cathartic' or purging effect on polis, or city, cleansing it of its aggressive or selfish instincts and recementing its communal bonds. -- Harley
Keith Reddin &  Susan Greenhill
Keith Reddin & Susan Greenhill
(Photo: James Leynse)

A. R. Gurney is a playwright with solid box office appeal. Much of it justified by plays like The Dining Room and The Cocktail Hour in which he penetrated the seemingly impenetrably cool exterior of white, upper middle class Americans, to reveal feelings and dysfunction carefully masked by civility. His penchant for romance and subversive humor seeded his two most popular and frequently produced plays, Love Letters and Sylvia.

Nowadays, even second tier Gurney often draws enthusiastic audiences. This proved to be the case when Primary Stages last year mounted his ten-year-old political comedy The Fourth Wall ( Review). Its success owed much to a stellar cast and peppy staging that included a piano that automatically played Cole Porter songs -- a prop that made its own statement even as it added to the fun.

Primary Stages' latest Gurney venture has several things in common with The Fourth Wall. It is again a satire -- two satires, since the title embraces two one-acters each with its own title. Once again, much is made of several musical interludes though the piano this time around is not automatic but played by Amy Southerland.

The second and longer piece, The Guest Lecturer, again breaks the fourth wall and the whole enterprise is contained within a tidy, intermissionless ninety minutes. Unfortunately, that's where the resemblance stops. Neither play lives up to the vision of Chekhov's popular playlets, that their titles suggest. The Problem, which comes first, is mercifully short but it is too insubstantial and derivative even for its thirty minute duration. The Guest Lecturer, seems interminable at just short of an hour -- this despite a good many chuckles, direction that makes good use of the small playing area and actors who work hard to make the most of the material at hand.

The Problem mixes a dash of Noel Cowardesque drawing room marital banter with a comedic variant of Harold Pinter's The Lover. A mathematician (Keth Reddin) is too focused on his proofs to notice his wife's (Susan Greenhill) hard to miss pregnant state. Without giving too much away, this turns out to be less a unique comic dilemma than the playwright's way of looking at the more universal problem of unexpressed passions in need of extreme and fantastical measures to keep marital ennui at bay. There are also some ineffectual attempts at sly political incorrectness.

In The Guest Lecturer, Mr. Gurney pokes good-natured fun at both small, financially desperate regional theaters and ambitious academics. Mr. Reddin and Ms. Greenhill, both physically and amusingly transformed, are back on stage. She's Mona, the rail thin and somewhat ditzy artistic director of the money strapped community theater that her grandmother established because "she felt that democracy and the theater went hand in hand." He's Fred, a hard-headed business man who has added a decidedly unconventional twist to the lecture series in order to shore up the theater's finances so that it can go back to mounting real plays. Forget about Coward and Pinter and instead think of Aresenic and Old Lace crossed with The Twilight Zone.

The action of the longer play begins as Mona, tells us about the latest guest lecturer, a graduate student named Harley (Remy Auberjonois) who is writing his thesis on the future of the American drama and the regional theater movement. Mona's constant interruptions, Fred's lurking presence and Harley's obtuseness about the danger that's clear and present to everyone except him -- not to mention an additional character named Pat (Amy Southerland) who arrives from the aisle to punctuate Harley's lecture on the piano at the side of the stage -- and it would all seem to have the makings of great fun. There are indeed moments that are fun and funny, as when Fred's scheme seems to have worked and Harley reads a passage from Antony and Cleopatra. The trouble is that there are a lot of lamer, tamer moments so that Gurney's conceit tends to wear thin and what should be hilarious is often just plain silly. Even the musical interludes which added to the enjoyment of The Fourth Wall don't seem to work. The lyrics written by the playwright vary from indistinguishable to undistinguished.

Keith Reddin plays the mathematician with appropriate absent-mindedness though he falls somewhat short in projecting any underlying sophistication. His slick-haired Fred provides some comic high points; for example the interchange with Harley quoted at the top of this review. Susan Greenhill has the most fun as the quirky Wife and champagne swilling Mona, her humor somewhat reminiscent of the late Ruth Gordon. While Harley is supposed to be made uncomfortable by Mona, Remy Auberjonois often seems just plain uncomfortable in his role.

James Noone's set -- a living room/study which opens up to a fairly bare bones stage -- serves both playlets well. The costumes and hair styles add to the sense of watching more than the listed actors on stage. Overall, Strictly Academic isn't terrible. But given the expectations A.R. Gurney's best work has caused his fans to expect, it's terribly disappointing. But not to worry, another Gurney play, Big Bill, is part of the Lincoln Center season and, having seen during its non-reviewable workshop presentation at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, I feel safe to predict that you'll find it more up to your expectations.

Written by A.R. Gurney
Directed by Paul Benedict
The Problem
Cast: Susan Greenhill and Keith Reddin.
The Guest Lecturer
Remy Auberjonois, Susan Greenhill, Keith Reddin and, at the piano, Amy Southerland
Set Design: James Noone
Costume Design: Laura Crow
Lighting Design: Deborah Constantine Music Direction: Amy & David Southerland
Original Music for The Guest Lecturer by Tom Cananias, lyrics by A. R. Gurney
Running time: 90 minutes, without intermission
Primary Stages, 354 W. 45 St.212/333/4052
10/08/03-11/30/03; opening 10/21/03 -- $48.
Tues through Sat @ 8pm; Saturday matinees at 2pm and Sunday matinees at 3pm
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 10/16/03 press performance

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