Saturday, October 29, 2016

Review:An A.R. Gurney Double Greekture Theater Show

By Michael Block 

To close out their long tenure at their space on White St., The Flea has offered a double showing of A.R. Gurney one acts that are thematically linked. Directed by Stafford Arima, Ajax and Squash explore the Greeks through the collegiate lens. Spanning both the main stage and the basement black box, Two Class Acts is shutting the doors with a bang.
Down in the black box, the evening begins with an intimate two-hander in Ajax. The play follows Adam, a college kid who hijacks a college classroom with his insistence on bringing his PTSD slash Israel and Palestine adaptation of Ajax to life. Meg, his professor, who happens to conveniently be a failed New York actress, decides to allow his passion project to become a reality until the iron fist of the university shuts it down due to concerns of the content. Without sounding like a complete dissertation on the Greeks, Gurney throws in a faulted romance to keep things interesting. Being an atmospheric play, Arima and scenic designer Jason Sherwood transformed the space into a classroom setting, from black box to green box lecture hall, bringing the audience into the world sitting behind tables. It was a wonderful attempt to bring life and exhilaration to the piece but the reality of the world was a bit farfetched. Were we really to believe that Adam could hijack that classroom with that much ease? And if teacher Meg allowed Adam to have that much control, how would the rest of the room really react? I’d imagine they’d just get up and walk out. Regardless of the silly rules of the world, Gurney has crafted an intense relationship play. These two individuals are driven to success yet get blinded from within the whirlwind. And when things got meta, it was slightly distracting but fun nevertheless.
photo by Joan Marcus
Where Arima succeeded was keeping his world tight and engaging. Reality aside, Arima brought variety into his staging, moving his two actors fluidly through the room. If you have any phobia of fluorescent lighting than this is not the show for you. Lighting designer Jake DeGroot played true to reality by illuminating the space with the overhead fixtures. To close in on the more intimate moments, DeGroot eliminated the furthest units to tighten in on the pair. DeGroot’s transitions were sharp, keeping the piece moving. Costume designer Sky Switser was handcuffed with very little “off stage” time for the duo to change. Switser put the pair in an outfit that was multifunctional. Between untucking shirts and removing pieces, Switser was still able to maintain the passage of time. But Meg’s outfit, though collegiate, made her look as if she tried way too hard. And that didn’t quite seem true to the character. Meg had a bit more ease to her, especially as a former New York actress. A special shoutout should be given to prop designer Zach Serafin for those syllabuses placed at each table. There was great detail incorporated.
With four actors, two male and two female, swapping around to play Meg and Adam, my performance saw Olivia Jampol and Chris Tabet take on the student and teacher. Olivia Jampol was simply delightful. There was a great comfort in her Meg. She had a soft spot to her with just a hint of her opportunistic nature. Adam is obnoxiously scrappy and loud with an aura of pretension. He’s not a likeable character. At least that’s how Chris Tabet played him. Whether it was character or actor, there was something off about Tabet’s Adam. If his goal was for you to wish Adam to fail miserably, then Tabet succeeded. Tabet’s Adam was sadly unlikeable. With the intimate setting, Tabet had some volume control woes, amplifying every word.
Up on the mainstage, Squash is an exploration of gender roles and sexuality. With the works of the Greeks as a framing device, Dan Proctor is a literature teacher at an unnamed yet obvious college in the greater Boston-Cambridge area, who begins a battle of self-discovery after one of his students challenges him using Plato and a bit of a come one. As Dan battles himself, he has a wife at home who tries to confront the roles of gender in the late 70s. Squash is short and sweet with a lot of bite. Gurney’s play may be a period piece but he’s able to convey universal issues of today. It’s an introspective piece that is carried by strong characters. Though there are shades of stereotypes within each individual, the connections Dan has with his wife Becky and student Gerald are in a sense artificial. But rightly so. Dan is a married man with kids. Yet is it a marriage of convenience? Gerald is a young man going through his own exploration of self. It’s something people of his age go through. Dan goes through a similar search of self but his stature and age is a bit more perilous. And that’s what makes Squash compelling.
Playing the confused professor, Dan Amboyer’s Dan is dangerously aloof with great intellect but extreme lack of social cues. Amboyer has instant draw to him. He’s a magnetic performer. When you’re willingly along for the journey, it proves that the performance is a success. Nicole Lowrance as Becky had a bit of a rough exterior to her longing housewife. She was a bit standoffish and cold. But that could be due to the uncertainty of her situation. As Gerald, Rodney Richardson had an ease about him. Sporting the orange hanky in his character’s costume, Richardson was down for anything. Richardson had a wonderful stronghold when Gerald gained the upper hand on Dan.
photo by Joan Marcus
Splitting the audience into two, Stafford Arima and Jason Sherwood had some obstacles when it came to bringing this multi-locational play to life. Sherwood’s set featured a quartet of raises platforms representing the locker room, the Proctor kitchen, Dan’s office, and the bar. The varying platforms depicted the various locales with great detail. Sherwood’s attention to the various floor treatments to the furniture in each was quite fitting. Arima had a strong sense of bearings in his staging. With the aid of Jake DeGroot’s lighting, Arima moved from world to world swiftly. The only woes Arima encountered were the alleyways that he brought into certain scenes. Depending on how far your neck could turn determined if you were able to see the action when they were brought off the platforms. Sky Switser succeeded again when it came to clothing the characters. They were evocative of the period without feeling forced. And for a play that happens to be about questioning sexuality, Switser put Dan and Gerald into pieces that showed off just enough skin.
A.R. Gurney’s Two Class Acts had some issues but as a pair, they complimented one another well. Ajax and Squash provide a great night at the theater and a wonderful way to say goodbye to the space on White St.