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Theatre in Review: Student Body (The Flea Theater)

Adam Alexander Hamilton, Tommy Bernardi, Alesandra Nahodil, Alex J. Gould. Photo: Hunter Canning.

It's a Friday night in winter, during finals, at a small college in the middle of nowhere. A snowstorm threatens. Ten friends meet on the stage of the school's theatre, where the set for the next production is only partly built. The stage is loaded with hazards -- dangling cables, screwdrivers, and power saws. One member of the group announces that she believes she has proof that a terrible crime has been committed.

No, I'm not describing last week's episode of Scream Queens. Instead of masked killers and random beheadings, the playwright, Frank Winters, has constructed a moral thriller. A week before the play begins, eight of the ten characters attended a party hosted by Sarah at her parents' house. As seems to be par for the course on campuses these days, everybody got royally blotto; Sarah passed out and was in bed by ten, and the party raged on without her. A few days later, looking at her parents' camera, she discovers that someone took dozens of ineptly framed and often out-of-focus shots of the carrying-on. The camera also has a video component, which contains footage of one of the guests, Laura, naked and apparently passed out on the kitchen table, being raped by a member of the lacrosse team.

The question, Sarah says, is this: What should she do with the video?

Liz, who wants nothing to do with this hot potato, demands that Sarah immediately surrender the video to the police. But Rob, who, by the way, happens to be on the lacrosse team, argues that the imagery is ambiguous, and, to avoid stirring up a scandal that might destroy more than one reputation, the video should be suppressed. Besides, he says, Laura has for the last year been throwing herself at several members of the lacrosse team. And, anyway, she was dressed like a slut that night. You can imagine how well this argument goes over with the ladies.

And so begins a furious debate, which becomes more and more complicated as it becomes obvious that almost everyone has a personal stake in the outcome -- and at least two of them know more about the incident that he or she initially admits. Not least is the fear that, if there is an arrest, followed by the inevitable media circus, they will get drawn into the scandal, leaving them less likely to get coveted internships and graduate school opportunities. And then there is the young woman who makes the astonishing argument that the incident just might have represented a triumph of sorts for Laura.

Winters' grasp of classic dramaturgy -- the ease with which he assembles the characters and the deft way he doles out fresh revelations every few minutes -- suggests that, whatever his theatrical fortunes, he may soon find a berth for himself on the writing staff of one of the better television serials. (I can totally see him turning out some corking episodes of The Good Wife.) Yet, for all his skill, he leaves one glaringly obvious plot point dangling: Why does nobody suggest contacting Laura to learn (a) what she remembers about the incident, and (b) what she wants to do about it. Laura's well-being often seems oddly peripheral to this largely self-absorbed group; even those who most vociferously demand that her abuser be brought to justice frame their arguments in largely general terms.

And, because we barely have time to get to know the characters before the arguments start flying, they come across as little more than human debate points, lacking in shading and moral nuance. A smarter director would have had her actors play against this tendency, showing how these troubled young people tease out the logic of their arguments while carefully shading their self-interest from public view; instead, Michelle Tattenbaum allows them to launch almost immediately into full stentorian mode, resulting in 80 minutes of often strident speechmaking. This is especially true of Alesandra Nahodil's Liz and Tommy Bernardi's Rob, mostly because they are given the most loaded arguments, but it also includes Mariette Strauss as Daisy, who comes on strong in defense of Laura, only to be reminded that she is a townie who works at Starbuck's, and therefore an outsider. Among the better performances are Alexandra Curran, whose Sarah is genuinely anguished; Audrey Wang as Natalie, who knows all too well what Laura must have gone through; and Comfort Katchy as April, who discovers, to her horror, that she has an enormous conflict of interest.

The rest of the production -- Jerad Schomer's half-finished interior, Elizabeth M. Stewart's appropriately moody lighting, and Stephanie Levin's costumes -- are all solid. Lee Kinney's minimal sound design includes the slamming-door effect that announces each character's arrival and a couple of smartphone-related cues.

Student Body is a fast-moving and generally engaging drama of high-tension exchanges by a writer of real talent, but its taut structure wants a little more fleshing out. Still, it's good enough to make me eager to see what he does next. -- David Barbour

(13 October 2015)

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