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Theatre in Review: Two Class Acts (The Flea Theater)

Dan Amboyer, Rodney Richardson. Photo: Joan Marcus

The playwright A. R. Gurney has been a class act for several decades, and it's only appropriate that he ring down the curtain on the current location of the Flea Theater, which has done so well by him in recent years. (In 2017, The Flea moves to a new home a couple of blocks south of its current White Street location.) Two Class Acts, a pair of one-acts, each performed in a separate space at the Flea, is prime Gurney material, dealing with academic life, politics, changing times, and WASP culture (a term he hates). Perhaps because of their brief running times -- each is less than an hour -- they are less substantial than usual; for once, this most inventive of playwrights touches on his favorite themes without having much new to say about them.

Ajax, staged in the theatre's basement space, is a two-hander focusing on Meg, an ex-actress turned adjunct professor, teaching an Intro to Classic Greek Drama course. (In Jason Sherwood's set design, we are seated at tables suitable for taking notes, in the glare of institutional fluorescent lighting. We are given a flyer that lays out the semester's agenda, which includes the wincingly perfect lecture titles "All in the Family: Approaching the Oresteia" and "Dead Poet(ics) Society.") Meg, trying to lecture on the Oresteia, is constantly interrupted by Adam, a late sign-up for the course, who only wants to talk about the Sophoclean tragedy Ajax.

Ajax, Adam notes, is about post-traumatic stress disorder, an assertion that allows him to sound off about violence in American culture, US misadventures in the Middle East, hedge funds, and other social ills. "Actually, I think that I, myself, have a little PTSD," he adds. "I mean, as a Jewish boy, and the special guilt I feel about my people's treatment of the Palestinian people." Under Meg's steady, skeptical gaze, he announces that he has written his own adaptation of Ajax, filled with commentary on the 21st-century world.

As it happens, Adam's version of Ajax is good, and, with Meg in the cast, it starts to take on a life of its own. (By this point, Adam is in hot pursuit of Meg, who isn't exactly fighting him off.) Indeed, Adam's Ajax is so popular that the school sponsors a staging for its big donors -- a decision that backfires when charges of anti-Semitism are leveled at -- that's right -- Adam, whose last name is Feldman.

Ajax is solidly in the tradition of Gurney's plays for The Flea, which have a ripped-from-the-headlines quality not found in his high comedies produced uptown. He sounds off eloquently here, but his editorializing doesn't always mesh well with the Meg-Adam romance, which has a breezy, screwball quality. Still, under Stafford Arima's direction, it all goes down easy. The production is double-cast with members of The Bats, the Flea's in-house troupe; at the performance I attended, Olivia Jampol and Ben Lorenz were charm personified as Meg and Adam; also notable is Sky Switser's costume design, which includes some incredibly fast changes for Meg.

In Squash, Dan Proctor, a strapping young classics professor, has just completed the title game when he is approached, in the locker room, by one of his students, Gerald Caskey. Oddly, Gerald says he is there to deliver his paper on Plato, weeks early. There's no question that Plato has had an effect on Gerald, who says he has come to check out Dan's body in the nude. Dan, who has stripped down and put on a towel, does what most straight men did in the 1970s: He panics.

The rest of Squash follows Dan as he enters into a period of uncertainty about his sexual identity, even as Gerald starts to head in the other direction. This role-reversal act is so sketchily rendered that it never seems all that believable; in any case, Gurney doesn't try too hard to develop it. Nor does he fully explore the notion of a professor who teaches Plato's Symposium while finding his life becoming a kind of symposium on the nature of love. The playwright's ear for academic silliness is keen, especially when Dan explains that he lets his kids watch the old television series The Wild, Wild West because "it has Homeric elements, like the films of John Ford." Amusingly, Dan, likable as he is, has no idea how he sounds when, learning that Gerald has taken up squash, announces, "You remind me of the Conversion of Saint Augustine. A voice from somewhere must have told you to 'take and play.' What would that be in Latin? Tolle, lude." Gurney, who spent years teaching at MIT.

Arima directed again, and he keeps the tone light and bright, eliciting totally solid performances from Dan Amboyer as Dan, Rodney Richardson as Gerald, and Nicole Lowrance as Becky, Dan's wife, who knows how to work the academic social circuit to her husband's advantage. Sherwood provided the set design, which ingeniously lays out a series of playing areas -- locker room, kitchen, office, and bar -- with the audience seated on two sides of the stage. Jake DeGroot's lighting moves fluidly from location to location. Switser's costumes are informed by his eye for detail -- bell-bottom trousers, suspenders, and tweed jackets, among them. Miles Polaski's sound design includes a playlist of period pop hits and TV and radio commercials.

I can't pretend that Two Class Acts is anywhere near Gurney at his finest, but the two pieces constitute a fond farewell to the space that has seen the growth of the Flea into a major downtown troupe. I fully expect to see a more substantial Gurney offering in the Flea's new digs, and soon. -- David Barbour

(2 November 2016)

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