A considerable improvement on most of the Long Wharf Theater’s new plays this season, Anthony Giardina’s “Black Forest” emerges as an honest, intelligent attempt at revisiting the oft-plowed field of academia to investigate the problems of teachers — boredom, midlife crises, sexual infidelity and moral questioning. Drawing on his own experiences in academia, Giardina has created a varied group of characters — some more types than individuals — and placed them in situations that give rise to dramatic dividends.
The title motif is somewhat overused. Notes tell us it refers to Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” and the play’s setting “at and around one of the last surviving women’s colleges.” There’s also the suggestion that the characters are flailing around in a black forest of the soul; a student in the opening scene is writing a paper titled “Black Forest”; and in a Christmas party scene at a faculty member’s home, Germany’s Black Forest is looked up in an atlas and Black Forest cake is served. Naturally, set designer Hugh Landwehr has created a proscenium of a leafless tree trunks and limbs that bridges the LWT’s thrust stage. It’s all a bit much.
At the play’s core is Professor Jacob Freundlich (Reed Birney), whose specialty is 20th century literature. He’s been faithfully married for 18 years and has three children, two published books and tenure. All ennui and angst, he’s overwhelmed by the hopeless feeling that he’s “fallen off the edge ofthe world.” He eventually succumbs to the temptation of an affair with a fellow faculty member (Sharon Scruggs) who has just been dumped by the bisexual department chairman (Tom Tammi). He, in turn, is having a relationship with a male member of his faculty (Dave Simonds) whose wife is about to have their first child and who is attempting to go straight.
Freundlich’s dilemma is the focal point of the play, though there are other plot elements. Another professor (Ron Parady) foolishly makes a pass at a student, jeopardizing his career. At the Christmas party the drunken hostess (Jennifer Harmon) suddenly launches into a diatribe of retro racism that seems altogether too blatant for the campus of such a college.
The production is mostly well cast, acted and directed, Birney being called upon to carry the main weight. He’s very good, but has a tendency to underplay, to the point where he begins to disappear. As the woman with whom Birney’s character has his unfortunate affair, Scruggs projects a suitably lonely aura of need and hurt.
Landwehr’s set makes use of automation technology new to the LWT. It allows for platforms with set pieces to be maneuvered on and off the otherwise empty stage on curved tracks. The stage itself, floor and rear wall, is elaborately decorated with mosaic-like patterns and floral curlicues.
Paul Sullivan’s original music is upstaged by the songs from such Broadway musicals as “Camelot” and “Mame” that are used to bridge scenes. A lot of name-dropping occurs in the play, including Robert Goulet, Jack and Jackie (Kennedy), Tom and Nicole (Cruise and Kidman), Phil Silvers, Jack Benny and Jodie Foster.
Much of the play’s dialogue has the exactly right academic-faculty sound to it; clearly Giardina knows whereof he writes. If only he had dug deeper into this milieu to go beyond sexual infidelity and midlife crises — elements that in such a setting teeter dangerously on the edge of cliche. Overall the play is worthy of appreciation more for its ambitions than its accomplishments.