Jonathan Marc Sherman’s campus play “Sophistry” may have caused a stir in 1993, when it premiered at Playwrights Horizons. But it’s hard to see its relevance for contempo auds, who are less easily shocked by the topic of sexual harassment — or as ready to buy into the premise that college kids are too morally apathetic to give a hoot when a student accuses a tenured prof of raping him. Lack of specificity in South Ark Stage’s revival also does little to ground the play in its period or give the colorless students something to make them less stereotypical and more human.
In all fairness, even a brilliant young cast (like the original ensemble, which included Ethan Hawke, Calista Flockhart and Anthony Rapp) couldn’t disguise the big tease-no payoff nature of Sherman’s script, which comes on strong in depicting the purported rape of a gay student by his philosophy professor — and then drops the whole thing.
Veteran thesp Jonathan Hogan builds a sturdy and quite sensitive perf as Whitey McCoy, the milquetoast philosophy prof reduced to playing Santa Claus at the local mall when he’s forced to leave his tenured position at a small liberal arts college in New England.
Michael Carbonaro proves a worthy foil as the traumatized student, Jack Kahn, who tells an entirely different story of their middle-of-the-night encounter when he testifies before the college president.
One of them is a liar, and for a while, Sherman has us wondering — just as John Patrick Shanley and David Mamet did, when they posed the same maddening conundrum in, respectively, “Doubt” and “Oleanna.” But while Shanley and Mamet attacked the issue by examining it from every conceivable angle, Sherman merely observes that it’s a sophistic question — in the sense that the cleverness of the argument matters more than the literal truth of the matter — and leaves it dangling.
Scribe’s point, of course, is that either of the clashing versions told by the student and the prof could be valid, but neither the conflict-averse college administrators nor the morally disengaged students of the 1990s could be bothered to pursue the truth. Of all the hyperactive kids crammed into the crowded dorm designed by Charles Corcoran, only Robin Smith, a reporter for the school newspaper played with insufferable smugness by Natalie Knepp, even remembers to bring up the issue from time to time.
But while scribe is entitled to illustrate how easily distracted these airhead kids are by their nonacademic pursuits of music, alcohol, weed and sex, he really does have a duty to give his audience some meatier matter for our trouble. And while the youthful thesps who play these children are entitled to frolic around in their undistinguished roles, none of them really seems to be having much fun.