(Front) Louiza Collins. (Back) Katherine Folk-Sullivan and John Russo. Photo by Richard Termine.
BOTTOM LINE: People who remember their college introductory classes fondly will greatly appreciate this new Gurney work.
"The Western Tradition," an introductory humanities course frequently taught at universities, provides the syllabus for A.R. Gurney's new work Office Hours presented by The Bats, the young resident company of The Flea Theater.
The course, which consists of "readings and discussions of basic works which have significantly shaped our culture," provides the syllabus for this work. We experience this course through a number of young professors who find themselves in situations that mirror that of the curriculum they are teaching.
Through ten different scenes, each representing a different month in the academic year, Gurney takes us through everything from Homer to Aeschylus to Dante to King Lear and more. Connecting these disparate scenes is the struggle the professors are facing as their university considers canceling the (then) mandatory course. The show is set in the 1970s, when universities reconsidered courses like this, which were long the bane of many students.
Gurney's revisit, though at times interesting, reminds contemporary audiences why students hated these courses to begin with. The show is hampered not solely by the rather boring material being portrayed but also by a hammer-to-the-head obviousness of it all.
Recall Francesca, who commits adultery with her brother-in-law Paolo in Dante's Inferno? Your college professor would be proud if you also remembered that they fall in love while reading the tale of Lancelot and Guinevere as told in the second circle of hell. Predictably, we witness two professors who, during the Dante section, fall in love while reading…Dante.
Then we also witness a student being accused of plagiarism. The student demands a trial. What did she plagiarize? Aeschylus's The Oresteia, of course. And if that connection is somewhat lost on a playgoer who perhaps hasn't kept up on their Greek tragedy, the professor states "we'll get a trial between two passionate, opposing positions — just what Aeschylus gives us in The Oresteia."
The cast of this show does a very good job capturing the rather boorish self-importance that these professors all seem to share. Similarly, the costumes and set accurately express the feel of a college campus in the 1970s. In the end though, the audience — like generations of students — suffer from the weighty, overly serious, and borderline obsessive manner in which these topics are confronted.
(Office Hours plays at The Flea Theater, 41 White Street between Church Street and Broadway, through October 24, 2010. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7pm, Saturdays at 3pm and 7pm, and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $25 and are available at theflea.org or by calling 866.811.4111.)