By Myra Chanin
The premieres of two of A. R. Gurney’s new one-act plays are cleverly grouped together as Two Class Acts. Both are about contemporary college life and mores and may have been based on observations Gurney made during the 26 years he taught humanities at MIT, between 1956 when he graduated from Yale and 1982 when he moved to New York. Both involve college classics teachers who become involved with their students.
In the first, Ajax, the sexual involvement occurs between Meg (Olivia Jampol), a insecure adjunct instructor cum failed actress, and Adam (Chris Tabet), a brash Jewish student who arrives in Meg’s Greek Drama class during its fourth session, immediately wrests control from her by refusing to write a required composition but instead offers to compose a modern version of the Sophocles play Ajax which Adam believes is actually a study of Ancient Greek PTSD that occurred as a result of guilt of the warriors that fought the Trojan War over the violence they committed.
In between arguing about the classics, Adam makes a pass or three at Meg who doesn’t reject him in any convincing way, either before or especially after he offers her his plays leading role of Ajax’s concubine Tecmessa. However, he surprisingly manages to get his play performed at the school to great acclaim. But that’s not good enough for Adam. He rewrites his original script with a new vision — as an uneven power struggle between the poor Palestinians and the big, bad Israelis. Adam loves the rewrite and the play is performed again to great acclaim but the college administrators nix future performances out of fear that it’s anti-Israeli bias may cost them funding from the University’s Jewish benefactors. What! Not a mention about the Jewish stranglehold on the media!
I just checked the plot of Ajax in Wikipedia. It didn’t have much in common with Adam’s above. The original Ajax is a play about the anger of the Number Two Greek Ajax after the Greatest Greek Achilles is killed and the powers that be give Achilles armor to Odysseus instead of to him. !@#$%^&*!! Lots of blood ensues including the blood of Ajax, who commits suicide and the rest of the play consists of arguments about whether or not and where to bury Ajax’s body.
I found Gurney’s Ajax offensive, not because it spread the same old lies about Jews but because it was artificial and jerky. I think it needs to be rethought and turned into a longer play with more details and depth and less superficial characters. I presume it’s a comedy, but the humor didn’t come through to me. However, Jason Sherwood’s set was terrific, with desks neatly arranged around a big space like in a college classroom. Stafford Arima’s direction was clever with everyone in the audience given a syllabus of the course — a two-page list of Greek dramas, which were barely mentioned again.
In Squash, Dan Proctor (Dan Amboyer) plays a handsome, muscular Upper Class Wasp Classics instructor, the product of ritzy schools, whose wife Becky, the mother of three young children, seems more concerned about the machinations her husband should perform in order to assure his receiving tenure than actually paying attention to their progeny. Dan is being stalked by Gerald Caskey (Rodney Richardson), a gay African-American student who presents him with a term paper in the locker room after a squash game, hoping (1) to impress the blonde hunk with his scholarship and (2) get a good look at Dan’s naked body. (1) is a no. Procter gives Caskey a C minus because in his paper Caskey only discussed the Greek physical love – Eros – but excluded Agape, the forgiving Christian love, which needed to be compared and contrasted with Eros. But Caskey gets a big yes to (2).
Somehow Dan begins to doubt his sexuality and offers to explore man on man love with Caskey, only to learn that Caskey has become obsessed with playing Squash which has made a he-man out of him. Caskey is now living with a female squash player with whom he plays both in and off the court. Daniel returns to his old life, reconciles with his wife, who makes sure that he receives tenure and herself returns to school.
Jason Sherwood’s multi-set scenic design for this play was also quite impressive. But I found very little feeling in this play as well. It was a clever idea but not quite clever enough. Laughter was sparse. The characters were too superficial to be funny.
I’ve always been a fan of A. R. Gurney. I prefer plays that are based on his own experiences rather than his observations.
At the Flea Theater 41 White Street until November 12 www.TheFlea.org
Photos: Joan Marcus