“Quartermaine’s Terms,” Simon Gray’s terrifically sad/funny play of isolation in academic circles, now receiving a worthy revival in the Massachusetts Berkshires, could have just as easily been called “Otherwise Disengaged.” The lonely, well-meaning bachelor St. John Quartermaine (Jefferson Mays) survives, barely, in the dreary staff room of an English private school for foreigners. It’s the classroom where his disconnect is increasingly evident: not knowing his students, skipping out on class or just drifting away in an old, worn armchair, oblivious to the changing forces around him.
At first, the “amazing ability not to let the world impinge on you,” as a colleague puts it, seems like a bit of the absent-minded professor. But something is amiss in the mind of Quartermaine, though it seems to barely register among his fellow academics, singularly focused on their own families, lovers and careers.
The husband of Anita (Morgan Hallett) is playing around. The wife of Mark (Stephen Kunken) leaves this wannabe-but-not-gonna-be writer. Henry (Simon Jones) is having problems with his teenage daughter. And Melanie (Ann Dowd) is trapped caring for a hateful mother. Part-time teacher Derek (Jeremy Beck) is overwhelmed with accidents and a desperate need for a more permanent position.
Overseeing the whole lot with English gentility and razor-sharp control is Eddie (John Horton), an older man who runs the school with his unseen partner. In fact, all of the teachers’ significant others are offstage characters but vividly portrayed in the telling.
Eddie may spy the stubble of a staffer or note another’s questionable attire, but he looks the other way regarding Quartermaine, not disregarding the teacher’s many failings so much as keeping him on out of, what — loyalty, pity, habit?
Set in the early ’60s, Quartermaine could represent an order of an older, established, class-connected life that just goes on and on without any challenge or change. It signifies a system where good cheer and manners are enough to get one through the day, a semester, a life. But when change comes to the school, Quartermaine’s deficiencies are finally too great to be overlooked and even institutional protection must give way to a new world order.
Mays gives the unfilled cup of a character a sense of otherworldly-yet-childlike fragility, innocence and blankness. Looking like a cross between Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Mays has the perpetual wide-eyed look of a man terrified of missing a moment or not knowing what to do with it if he found it, someone who takes things in yet has no ability to process it.
The rest of the cast gives support to Gray’s tale of more than one lost soul, especially Dowd’s spinster, who goes through several transformations during the play, not to mention each scene. Horton gives a sterling perf as the keen-eyed administrator who signals many shadings of meaning in the slightest throwaway line.
It’s been 26 years since the play’s Off Broadway transfer from New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater, and this Williamstown visit reaffirms Gray’s great gift of handling personal devastation in academic circles — and beyond — with wit and rue. Maria Aitken helms a first-class production that deserves a longer run than this summer festival allows.