Alfred Uhry certainly understands the bond between drama teacher and starry-eyed high school thesp is inherently more personal and complicated than the usual teacher-student rapport. But while his “Without Walls” blurs the rules that govern normal teacher-student relations, the play is ultimately trapped by a limited premise and lacking in the thematic veracity that made Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy” so convincing. Though the two dysfunctional high school students receive inadequate portrayals, Laurence Fishburne delivers an endearing perf as passionate educator Morocco Hemphill.
For Anton McCormick (Matt Lanter) and Lexy Sheppard (Amanda MacDonald), Morocco is their mentor, confidant and parent all rolled into one. The students come from upscale but monumentally troubled families, adding weight to their need for Morocco’s affirmation and support.
Adding to the climate of educational permissiveness, the action is set the progressive Dewey School in 1976 Manhattan. The concept has an enthusiastic ally in Fishburne’s flamboyant, deceptively fey Morocco, a former chorus boy who loves his job and excels at it.
Lexy, Morocco’s star pupil, finds in him the emotional support she does not receive from her autocratic corporate lawyer father; like others before her, Lexy rewards her teacher’s dedication with affection and indefatigable commitment.
Anton, a fatherless rich kid who has failed at every prep school, is placed on a collision course with Lexy when Morocco casts them opposite one another in the school’s production of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.”
But in a disappointing thematic turn, Uhry makes Anton’s dysfunction the driving force of the play. The boy’s palpable need grows like a cancer that eventually engulfs the lives of Morocco and Lexy — there is simply too much damage inflicted by too insignificant a character.
Fishburne offers a portrait of an intelligent, witty, soulful, always well-intentioned mentor. His emotions are never guarded, whether in anger, joy, disappointment or sorrow. Unfortunately, he is acting in a different play than his fellow cast members. Helmer Christopher Ashley appears to lack the directorial insight to unite this threesome, but the problem is more in the casting than the staging.
Lanter fails to find the rich underpinnings of the emotionally adrift Anton. Annoying boyish mannerisms substitute for true youthful yearning and angst. And his flippant sitcom-ish acting undermines not only the characterization but also the heart of the play’s intent.
MacDonald often exudes an endearing vulnerability as the fragile but ultimately self-serving Lexy but fails to build an inner life for this girl. In particular, she never communicates the emotional evolution that would lead Lexy to become so infatuated with Lanter’s so undeserving Anton.
The superficially attractive sets of Thomas Lynch and Charlie Corcoran do not always serve the needs of the play’s many environments and at times block the flow of action.