What could be funnier than a playwright morbidly contemplating some dark day in the future when his plays have been forgotten and no one remembers his name? A.R. Gurney fantasizes about that gloomy possibility in “Post Mortem,” translating every scribe’s occupational fear into a droll political comedy about a repressive society brought down by one of the playwrights it has consigned to oblivion. Although the caricature is too broad in Jim Simpson’s heavy-handed production for the Flea Theater, the taste of revenge is too sweet to deny.
In the dystopian society envisioned by Gurney, the Christian right wing is deeply entrenched in government and has used its political muscle to turn all state universities into faith-based institutions. Political plays have been banned, classrooms are bugged, library purges are the order of the day, and all Broadway theaters have been turned into gambling casinos to pay off the government’s crushing debt from the Iraq war.
But revolution is afoot in one evangelical college in the Midwest. An upperclass student named Dexter (Christopher Kromer) has fallen in love with Alice (Tina Benko), a drama teacher with a secret passion for Tennessee Williams. In his efforts to woo Alice, Dexter has tracked down an unpublished political play called “Post Mortem” by a forgotten scribe named A.R. Gurney who may have been murdered to keep his libertarian ideas from contaminating young minds.
Seduced by Dexter’s scholarship, Alice reads the lost masterpiece he has uncovered and supports his subversive plans to produce it on campus. “You remind me that the universities have always been the custodians of culture, even as civilizations have collapsed around them,” Alice says, shortly before she falls swooning into Dexter’s arms.
The play’s second half jumps ahead to an even more distant point in the future when Alice and Dexter have become national celebrities for the rescue job they did on Gurney. Like some latter-day “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” “Post Mortem” has cleansed all nations of their aberrant ideologies, and peace now reigns throughout the world.
An earnest student named Betsy (in a perky perf by Shannon Burkett) leads the cheering by recounting all the marvelous events that transpired once “Post Mortem” opened people’s eyes to the vile and insidious nature of their repressive government. Gurney lets his imagination run wild here, envisioning the downfall of Dick Cheney (“a major nemesis in English history, the exiled Napoleon on the island of Saint Helena”) and the utter annihilation of the Republican administration.
But that was only the political appetizer. “This big, broad, beautiful play,” as Alice describes it, “has brought about peace among nations, and universal health care, and convenient public transportation, and an equitable tax system.”
Call it wishful thinking, but the student auds at which this broad satire is aimed will no doubt hoot and holler at Gurney’s goofy fantasy about the reclamation of political power by academic rebels like Alice and Dexter. But even in the friendly atmosphere of the Flea, the play’s appeal to a broader audience seems limited.
Describing events, however remarkable, that happen offstage is a far cry from throwing them onto the stage in all their exciting theatrical disarray. Helmer Simpson and his game cast certainly labor to bring some life into their recitations of the offstage action, but there’s something desperate about their arm-waving, eye-popping delivery that takes the fun right out of the comedy.
And by the end of the play, when Gurney comes right out and makes a plea for “some hint of a moral universe, or at least some basic sense of civility,” it feels like one more theater has lost its purpose and been turned into a lecture hall. Better a gambling casino.