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Theatre in Review: Please Continue (Ensemble Studio Theatre)

Molly Carden, David Edward Jackson, Jared McGuire. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

Scientists often use the word "elegant" to praise a theory or an experiment, but it's the last word one can apply to Please Continue, a science-minded drama hampered by an awkward construction concept. Taking hold of two wildly different events at Yale in the fall of 1960 -- each of them involving the effects of social pressure on moral decision-making, and each ensnaring an idealistic male student -- the playwright, Frank Basloe, is content to let them run on separate tracks for ninety-five percent of his drama's running time. When he finally does bring them together, in the eleventh hour, the result is a big fizzle.

This is especially surprising, since both narratives are loaded with dramatic opportunities. The first focuses on the psychologist Stanley Milgram, who notoriously devised an experiment in which volunteers were asked to run questions by a man sitting inside a special booth; in response to an incorrect answer, the volunteer was instructed to press one of several levers, each of which administered electric shocks of increasing intensity; this was ostensibly an experiment in education. Of course, there were no electric shocks, and the man in the booth was little more than an actor following instructions and screaming on cue. (In one of those strange moments of synchronicity, last year saw the release of the film Experimenter, which stars Peter Sarsgaard as Milgram.) Basloe gives Milgram an assistant, James Sanders, a pleasant, affable young man who is startled to discover that nearly every volunteer agrees to keep administering "shocks" to the 300-watt level and beyond. Even when these poor guinea pigs begin showing considerable signs of stress, Sanders remains oddly blind to the implications of what he is doing.

The second plotline focuses on a sex scandal that rocked the university that same year, involving a 14-year-old New Haven girl who serviced upwards of two dozen male students at dormitory sex parties. (The story was covered at the time by the international press.) Basloe invents another student, Francis Dunleavy, who, in desperation, reaches out to William Sloane Coffin, then Yale's chaplain, for a series of counseling sessions, during which he only belatedly, and after much agony, admits that he was a participant at one such party. He wasn't among those caught and, haunted by the unfairness of it all, is seeking some form of penance.

Overall, Please Continue would be a far happier experience if it explored these situations in dramatic fashion rather than behaving like an academic presenting data at an especially dull conference. The Milgram plot has a few perceptive moments: Sanders wants to avoid working with lab rats, for which he has a pronounced distaste; little does he know that instead he will run a study that reduces people to lab rats. One such experiment, in which the volunteer starts to unravel under the pressure of apparently torturing another human being, is fairly gripping, and is followed up by an interesting scene in which Sanders later runs into that unhappy young man in a social situation and can't understand why the fellow wants nothing to do with him. But there's too much lame fussbudget comedy affixed to Milgram's character -- he's always complaining about the lack of a parking place -- and his interest in the subject of moral peer pressure is explained away in a single line. ("As a Jew, as someone who has immense difficulty fathoming what the Germans....we need to understand just how far people will actually allow themselves to go.") Sanders is portrayed as such a blockhead that it is necessary for his friend, Saul, to point out the obvious -- that what Sanders does to the volunteers is being done to him by Milgram.

The Dunleavy narrative gives even more cursory treatment to a knotty moral problem. It takes forever for Dunleavy to admit what he did, and while Coffin makes a striking point or two ("You are seeking punishment to avoid judgment"), their back-and-forth is so woodenly conceived that neither William Carden, the director, nor Tommy Schrider and Jared McGuire, who play Coffin and Dunleavy, can bring any conviction to it. McGuire improves markedly in a pair of scenes with Dylan Dawson, extremely fine as another Yalie, who did get caught with the girl and sees the entire scandal -- and his suspension -- as a brief distraction on the road to upper-middle-class success. Basloe throws an interesting curve ball when he introduces Dunleavy's fiancée, Margaret, a rather plain and notably virtuous Smith girl who has one leg in a brace; she also has something of a steel-trap mind, and Molly Carden makes the most of her opportunities in a confrontation with Coffin. Clearly, Margaret is made of sterner stuff than the man she loves, but the script cuts her off before we can really get to know her.

And, although there is an obvious thematic connection between the two storylines, they don't intersect until the final scene, when Sanders, Dunleavy, and Margaret sit down after church for tea, cookies, and a brief moment of pondering what it all means. Basloe is pretty good on describing the prevailing environment at Yale, where female students are only weekend visitors (and are kept stashed at the Taft Hotel), all the young men want to be doctors or lawyers, and the very idea of voting for Kennedy rather than Nixon is virtual heresy, but he has surprisingly little to say about how the assumptions of this cloistered world influences the actions of the characters. The Dunleavy story suffers the most: Basloe never probes deeply enough into what made this upstanding young man behave so swinishly, and the script never stops to consider the systemic injustice involved. The girl is underage; why is no one prosecuted for statutory rape? Why is a one-year suspension deemed sufficient? Why is nobody interested in the poor abused girl? (Dunleavy eventually does seek her out, but his meeting with her parents happens offstage.)

The real problem is that two complicated stories are pruned of their most provocative and troubling details in order to make them fit the playwright's prearranged pattern, an approach that sells everybody short. David Edward Jackson does solid work as Sanders, but the part is too thinly conceived; this goes double for Haskell King as Milgram. In any case, the production has an effective design. Jason Simms' set surrounds the stage with neo-Gothic walls and stained glass windows, and the space is skillfully reconfigured for each scene by Eric Southern's lighting. Suzanne Chesney's costumes show a fine appreciation for what the Yale man wore at the dawn of the '60s. Shane Retting's sound draws on period tunes -- including Connie Stevens' "16 Reasons" and Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" -- to evocative effect.

A lot of disturbing ideas are raised in Please Continue, only to get buried under a lot of talk. The result is something like a dull graduate seminar with a title like "Ethics in the Modern World." This is a play that should wound; instead, it feels like homework. -- David Barbour

(11 February 2016)

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