nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
September 25, 2010
In 1965 I was attending the University of Wisconsin at Madison—a hot bed of political unrest and sexual promiscuity, intellectual stimulation, easily accessible drugs, and a rising tide of feminism. Unworldly and unsure of just about everything, I walked into a professor's office for a serious discussion on education and the direction mine should take. The question boiled down to declaring a major: English literature or journalism. What I really wanted to know was should I spend the next two and a half years training my mind for mental gymnastics or buff my skills vocationally for a life time of work. Any teacher worthy of the title should have been able to come up with a better response than the brief one I received—"I don't know."
Oh, had A.R. Gurney been that instructor! In Office Hours, his new play premiering at the Flea Theater, he captures the fading popularity of a classics education. The play takes place in the early 1970s, with the rising cacophony of voices that belong to students emboldened and distracted by the social uprisings around them. As the title indicates, the action unfolds during teachers' office hours. There, during a series of vignettes nicely linked by a projection indicating the hour, the month, and the book or author being taught, the teachers meet with their students—ailing, promising, quitting, and conniving—and try to instill a passion for the required two-semester introductory course on writers and thinkers whose ideas shaped Western civilization. In an engaging bit of mind-bending verbal dexterity, Gurney applies concepts from Homer, Aeschylus, Plato, the Bible, St. Augustine, Dante, and King Lear to the conferences between teachers and students.
Agility is the operative word for Office Hours, and not only for Gurney's script. The cast, the direction, the design teams all seem of a piece, coming together on beat in an excellent sense of community. Gurney, who has a special relationship with the Flea, wrote Office Hours for its ensemble, the Bats. There are two rotating casts of six. I witnessed the Homer cast (the other is Dante), and they performed the 28 roles with comfort and fluidity. Jim Simpson's clear direction injects a note of urgency as the school year moves along, and the threat of job losses echo. Simpson presses one scene on another as if there is little time to waste. And, the cast doesn't miss a beat.
They are truly an ensemble of actors, each playing teachers and pupils with a wide range of attitudes. For example, Andy Gershenzon shines as an arrogant, know-it-all instructor, then metamorphoses into a slothful student. Later, he reappears in a strong performance as an inarticulate, boring teacher, who shows his passion for his subject—the Bible—through tears. Without explanation, he urges his students to do the reading so they'll know what he means. Louiza Collins delivers a convincing combative student defending a piece of plagiarism as well as a seductive teacher, using Plato's work as weaponry. John Russo, Katherine Folk-Sullivan, Turna Mete, and Tommy Crawford add individuality to the mix to make Office Hours a worthwhile evening.
Kate Sinclair Foster uses familiar industrial desks and chairs for the set, adding a spark of color to the chairs for relief. The three doors at the back of the stage provide smooth entrances and exits for the three minimal, yet apt offices. Jessica Pabst designed appropriate period costumes, and Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew created the lighting.
The play, with no intermission, moves quickly—so quickly that I missed some references, but that could be because I didn't take the introductory course. I wish I had, if for no other reason than to explore and re-examine all the brilliant ideas that molded Western civilization. Still, the course isn't necessary to enjoy the artistry on display at the Flea. You just need to get up and go. Office Hours is an original bit of fun.