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Theatre in Review: Exit Strategy (Primary Stages/Cherry Lane Theatre)

Brandon J. Pierce, Ryan Spahn. Photo: James Leynse.

It's appropriate that Exit Strategy is set in a public school because the script suffers from ADD and is in need of remedial help. It leaps from stark confrontations to full-on rants to shocker revelations, with only the bare minimum of connective tissue; at times, you might feel that, rather than seeing Ike Holter's play, you're getting the highlights reel. Holter is a talent to watch -- nobody pens a takedown like he does and his arias of rage take the plaster off the walls -- but, after two hours of such in-your-face dramatics, it's possible to leave the theatre feeling surprisingly dissatisfied.

Exit Strategy is concerned with the calamitous state of public education in this country, a legitimate source of outrage; it is set in an inner-city Chicago high school that is in a spectacular state of disrepair. As Pam, a longtime faculty member, bitterly notes, "Even the paint's trying to run away from this place." As the play begins, Pam is in a meeting with Ricky, the stuttering nervous wreck of a vice principal, who has bad news: The school is set to close at the end of the year. Pam appears unsurprised; speaking the furious, run-on blank verse that constitutes the script's lingua franca, she says, "Forty percent of our students graduated last year./One could say I had a feeling./There's a gang that operates out of that 7-11 on the corner./They knock into me when I'm picking up smokes, I had an inkling./There are 20 computers. For 3,000 kids." She then commits an unthinkable act, not to be described here, that leaves the rest of her already-depressed colleagues in a state of despair.

The rest of Exit Strategy follows what happens when Donnie, a student caught hacking into the school's computer system as an act of protest, and Ricky, whose deep-seated anger and frustration suddenly find a fierce and eloquent (if profane) voice, team up, organizing the faculty to fight back against the city. The result is an all-too-brief moment of revolution-fueled elation before it all comes crashing down, a coming together that, in retrospect, becomes all the more poignant, given the smashup that follows.

Constructed as a series of pitched battles interrupted by roof-rattling monologues, Exit Strategy is never dull, but, because of its intensely single-minded focus, the characters seem to exist only to mouth set political positions and execute the author's marching orders, the latter sometimes requiring head-snapping mood swings. Pam appears to be as hard-boiled as they come, only to commit a startlingly counterintuitive act designed to end the first scene with a bang. Ricky is almost pathologically timid until he starts cursing a blue streak and calling on the teachers to put their jobs on the line. Donnie is a high-school senior, but, as written, he comes across as more articulate and worldly than characters two and three times his age; if he is representative of the student body, they should all be getting scholarships to Yale.

Still, under Kip Fagan's direction -- a few instances of sitcom-style comic strutting aside -- a strong cast makes the most of Holter's turbocharged way with words. Ryan Spahn, who made such a strong impression in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' Gloria earlier in the season, nails both sides of Ricky's character, practically tearing up the stage with his extended call-to-arms speech. ("I've been ignoring and avoiding and watching this place fall apart. But now there is an army of 3,000 soldiers that enters this building single-file every day, and starting tonight, starting right here, we are activating every last one of them.") Michael Cullen provides a strong counterweight to Spahn's rabble-rousing as Arnold, who fought the good fight in his youth and has lost his appetite for insurrection. ("You're an administrator using your power to bully innocent teachers into violating union policy, Mr. Hubble. I don't stop you? I'm not doing my job.") Aimé Donna Kelly packs plenty of attitude as Sadie, a black teacher, who shocks her colleagues by dismissing Donnie as "uppity," then tells Ricky, "I can say it, you can't say it." Rey Lucas is a genial presence as the mellow, pot-smoking Luce, who is quietly seeing Ricky on the side. As Pam, Deirdre Madigan delivers one scorching speech after another. ("I actually don't discuss sexual politics in the workplace," Ricky says, when questioned about his orientation. "'Sexual politics'," says Pam. "What, are you screwing a lobbyist or something?") Christina Nieves takes no prisoners as Jania, who informs Ricky, "You are Michelle Pfeiffering this school and I am onto your voodoo." Brandon J. Pierce's Donnie is the most mordant member of the senior class, opening negotiations by announcing, "School so broke you got to dole out toilet paper like it's currency."

The production design is an unusually complex one for the Cherry Lane stage. Andrew Boyce's evocative set uses the same depressing elements -- discolored white brick, mismatched furniture, tiny and/or covered windows -- to represent both Ricky's office and the faculty room; a general atmosphere of grime prevails. Thom Weaver's lighting adds to the cheerless atmosphere with a kind of fluorescent haze. Jessica Pabst's costumes strongly suggest that the faculty is in dire need of a raise. Daniel Perelstein's sound design includes several hip-hop selections and a foundation-shaking effect at the end that won't be revealed here.

Holter brings the characters together for a last hurrah that includes a couple of affecting revelations but should be more powerful than it is, in part because it feels that the author, in the name of keeping the action punchy, has skipped over too much of the story. Exit Strategy gives you a rush, and its cascades of words sometimes dazzle, but it falls short of landing the knockout punch that would justify such high-decibel tactics. -- David Barbour

(13 April 2016)

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