Review: ‘Strictly Academic’

In his own tidy, well-mannered fashion, A.R. Gurney is gunning for bear in this double bill of satiric comedies, in which he invites like-minded audiences to share his exasperation with academics and theater people so wrapped up in their narrow fields that they have become impervious to the big, wide, troubled world outside.

In his own tidy, well-mannered fashion, A.R. Gurney is gunning for bear in this double bill of satiric comedies, in which he invites like-minded audiences to share his exasperation with academics and theater people so wrapped up in their narrow fields that they have become impervious to the big, wide, troubled world outside. Departing stylistically from the upper-class comedy of manners that bear his signature in plays like “The Dining Room” and “The Cocktail Hour,” these farces are closer to the surreal style he adopted to clobber self-absorbed suburbanites in “The Fourth Wall.”

Although he hasn’t quite got the timing down (satire has a way of imploding once the point is made and grasped), Gurney seems determined to air his social commentary in a more stringent comic voice. Paul Benedict gives him a directorial leg up with a production that is all sharp edges and high beams, and a savvy cast supplies the proper teeth-on-edge delivery. True savagery may be a long way off, but playwright and company achieve a respectable level of unkindness.

“The Problem” succeeds in skewering an academic couple too absorbed in their work to have sex and too civilized to make a fuss when the wife inexplicably turns up pregnant. “We do have a problem there, don’t we?” observes the husband, coming out of his fog to notice her swelling belly. “I let you down,” he tells his wife. “I’ll make it up to you. So keep the damned thing.” Keith Reddin has a comic armlock on this oblivious academic, and you could bounce an ax off the mask of vapid serenity worn by Susan Greenhill as his long-suffering wife. But both characters have more cards to play before Gurney lets them off the hook, and there are some nice and nasty surprises in store.

“The Guest Lecturer” is more ambitious but less satisfying. Gurney allows his playfulness to be undone by his polemics, here aimed at theater people who sense their little world is shrinking and resort to aesthetic barbarism to keep it intact and exclusive. Greenhill makes a lovely monster of an artistic director named Mona who is desperate to hang on to her nonprofit theater’s dwindling subscription audience. As a guest lecturer who falls into her clutches, Remy Auberjonois has some effective moments of pure panic when he realizes what he stands to lose if he can’t convince Mona’s sensation-hungry audience that good theater should deliver more than visceral thrills.

The premise is clever but debated to death. And unlike the quirky resolution of “Problem,” the solution to the theater’s troubles is too … well, let’s put it this way: There is no solution to the theater’s troubles.

Strictly Academic

Primary Stages; 99 seats; $48

Production

A Primary Stages presentation of two comic plays, performed in one act, by A.R. Gurney. Directed by Paul Benedict.

Creative

Sets, James Noone; costumes, Laura Crow; lighting, Deborah Constantine; music direction, Amy Southerland, David Southerland; production stage manager, Pamela Singer. Primary Stages artistic director, Andrew Leynse. Opened Oct. 21, 2003; reviewed Oct. 25. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast

"The Problem" The Husband - Keith Reddin The Wife - Susan Greenhill "The Guest Lecturer" Mona - Susan Greenhill Hartley - Remy Auberjonois Fred - Keith Reddin Pat - Amy Southerland
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