Tea & Sympathy
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 13, 2007
I found Tea & Sympathy to be almost unwatchable in 2007, at least in director Jonathan Silverstein's staging, presented by Keen Company. Written in 1953, this play by Robert Anderson tells the story of a 16-year-old boy at a boarding school in New Hampshire who is persecuted for being "queer": after he is seen swimming nude with one of his teachers, the rumor mill cranks up to warp speed and within days pretty much everyone at the school, from the Dean on down, is ready to believe the worst about this young man. Only his housemaster's wife, Laura, recognizes that the boy is being treated unfairly. After he makes an abortive visit to the local town whore, she decides to help him prove his manhood by having sex with him, uttering the show's famous curtain line, "When you talk about this—and you will!—be kind."
This was racy stuff 50 years ago; what are we to make of it today?
The protagonist of the play is Laura, who alone among the characters understands the harm being done to the boy (his name is Tom Lee) by these unjust and untrue accusations. She also comes to realize that her marriage to Bill, the teacher who leads the charge against Tom, is a sham. In some ways, her independence and self-reliance are startlingly proto-feminist; but she remains a woman defined solely in terms of men, and her final act in the play, viewed as supreme sacrifice in the buttoned-up Eisenhower Era, is hard to place into context nowadays. Especially as portrayed by Heidi Armbruster, who has both the blonde beauty and the I-don't-give-a-damn looseness of the young Jessica Lange, Laura feels like Tom's Mrs. Robinson, ready to jump into the sack with a young man she lusts after. The nobility of a 30-something sleeping with a 16-year-old kid somehow eludes us—with good reason, I'd argue.
If we try to empathize with Tom's point of view, it's similarly problematic. Everybody, even Laura, seems to acknowledge Tom's "difference" (supposedly he walks funny; he likes poetry; he plays women's roles in the school play). But Dan McCabe, who was terrific last season in David Marshall Grant's Pen, seems to be making a point of showing us Tom's ordinariness. Loping across the stage and visibly recoiling while putting on his Lady Teazle costume, McCabe's Tom just seems like any gawky, shy teenager. If the other kids are picking on him for his "otherness," we're just not seeing enough evidence of it to understand why. His heterosexuality—in particular his desire for Laura—is evident from the get-go, so we know that he's not gay even if no one else believes it. This reinforces the "gay=bad" equation that propels Tea & Sympathy and makes it, hopefully, very dated.
The other corner of the play's triangle is Laura's husband, Bill, who, as portrayed by Craig Mathers, is such a repressed closet case that you don't need to claim to have any gaydar to realize it. Having such a presence as the villain of the piece makes that "gay=bad" aesthetic that I was just talking about even more pronounced.
Now, one can argue that by even raising these then-taboo issues in 1953, Anderson was doing something worthwhile, and there's certainly merit in that. But the question remains: what does Tea & Sympathy have to show us today? If we're only interested in its historical value, then there's a readily accessible (albeit somewhat expurgated) film, featuring the original stars and a screenplay by Anderson.
If Silverstein and Keen Company's artistic director Carl Forsman have some other perspectives to impart, they're not being clearly communicated in this production. There's no sense of place or period (in Theresa Squires's costumes, Beowulf Borrit & Jo Winiarski's set, or any of the actors' mannerisms), so historical reportage would not seem to be their motivation. There's certainly nothing like commentary happening here, though I longed for it more than once: what would the Ridiculous Theater or a modern counterpart like Theatre Askew make of the near-camp ethos that permeates this entire script?
Instead, the piece is done straight, so to speak; uninflected. The story is made to stand on its own, but lacking the context of jolting novelty it doesn't amount to much more than an unpalatably rehash of attitudes toward sexuality and gender that—we hope—disappeared from the common sensibility years ago.