BOTTOM LINE: A pointed satire of life in academia that feels as if it is straight out of the early sixties - stereotypes and all.
Written by Andrew Bauer and competently directed by Eleonore Dyl, Playing Cricket, an academic farce with a large ensemble cast, seems like a comedy out of another era, much like the rarefied, analog, never-changing world of the small liberal arts colleges that it satirizes. Set in the most "sacred" quarters of the ivory tower, the library, the author playfully reveals the backstabbing, ego-stroking and political brokering that is the underbelly of life in academia.
The protagonist of the play is Cricket, a doctoral student who seems destined never to graduate. He is the Peter Pan of the school, an imp and a trickster who never quite manages to grow up and get a degree, preferring instead to remain in limbo. Being in limbo allows him to orchestrate the petty machinations of the adults surrounding him rather than become one of them, and one can see the appeal. The three professors who make up the English department in which Cricket is a grad student, all white men, are not positive role models. Each one is a common (and negative) academic archetype: one is the womanizing department head who gets his underlings to do his work and then takes the credit for it, the second is the ass-kisser who manages to rise through the ranks without a shred of academic or personal integrity, and the third is a bumbling, emasculated worker bee who just wants to be liked (played to a tee by Richard Brundage). While these three "duke it out" - of course they couldn't use their actual fists if their lives depended on it - over who should get a coveted promotion, Cricket sets a plan in motion to help his friend (the worker bee) get both the job and the girl he is at risk of losing.
Ah yes, the women. The women are where this play really seems as if its from another era.
There are four female characters in the play, and each one is a little more stereotypical than the last. The most well-rounded female character is also the most powerfully situated at the college. She is an intelligent and ambitious PhD candidate, who just has one problem, she's not sexy. Over the course of the play, however, she discovers the power of her sexuality and uses it to manipulate a man into getting what she wants (of course). Cricket suggests she "tart it up" to please her boyfriend, but instead, she decides to seduce the department head and fast-track her degree, after witnessing the success of another character, Debra. Debra, a seemingly intelligent young women, passes all her classes by sleeping with her professors, refusing to attend class at all. Why, we don't know. Then there is the department head's wife. She is simply a snake; she slithers onto stage, stares people down, and then slithers back off. She has no real function in the plot. Lastly there is Aida, the "perfect" woman (as Cricket describes her). She is pretty, she doesn't actually work or go to the school (no intellect to threaten a man with), and she doesn't speak. This character literally has no voice. The most painful scene in the play is between Aida and her boyfriend. Although she doesn't say a word, and clearly wants to, in the end, she consents to marrying her boyfriend and having his babies with only a nod of her head - perfect.
One might argue that academia is stuck in the past, and that this play simply reflects that reality, but I found the "retro" approach to women somewhat offensive. That said, there are some nice things about the classic comedy feel of the play. The humor relies on clever verbal tricks and witty banter, which I love, and the subject matter is ripe with satire. If you can look beyond the stereotypes, you might have a good time, and you'll gain insight into why your professors back in college always seemed disgruntled, even though they appeared to have the cushiest job in the world.
(Playing Cricket plays through February 20, 2010, Thursday through Saturday at 8pm and Saturdays at 3pm. at the Kraine Theater, 85 East 4th St., between 1st and 2nd Avenues. Tickets are $18. For tickets and more information visit www.horsetrade.info.)