May 16, 2009

Its Many Duplicities Unbalance "Sophistry"

The drama unfolded on TV but it’s hard to think of a more theatrical event than the confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas’s nomination to replace Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court. Anita Hill’s testimony that Thomas had made unwelcome advances when she worked for him catapulted the issue of sexual harassment into the national spotlight. And like millions of people, I was glued to the tube that weekend and talked about what transpired for weeks after.

The he-said, she-said controversy also fired up the ire and imaginations of writers all over the country, including David Mamet, whose 1992 drama Oleanna tells the tale of a college student who accuses her professor of harassment, and Jonathan Marc Sherman, whose similarly-themed 1993 play Sophistry is currently being revived at the Beckett Theatre. I saw Oleanna three times but somehow missed Sophistry back then and so I was particularly interested in seeing South Ark Stage’s new production.

Sophistry is actually two plays in one. The first is about a popular philosophy professor at a small New England College who is accused of sexual misconduct with a male student. The second centers around a group of students at the school and their “Animal House”- like activities—drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll, or in this case the grunge music of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The stories intersect but they don’t really mesh. Sherman was just 25 and three years out of Bennington College when Playwrights Horizons first produced Sophistry and it’s a young man’s play, bristling with both genuine promise and callow bravado.

What people seem to remember most about the original production is its cast. Calista Flockhart, Ethan Hawke, Anthony Rapp and Steve Zahn, all at the beginning of their careers, played the students alongside the playwright himself with Austin Pendleton as the professor. Stripped of such high-wattage talent and the galvanizing heat of the debate over sexual harassment, the show packs less of a punch than it did in ’93 when the New York Times critic Frank Rich praised Sherman’s “idiosyncratic personality” and that production’s “energetic cast.”

There are some nice performances in the current production too. Natalie Knepp brings a sharp intelligence to the role of the college’s crusading journalist, Ian Alda, the grandson of Robert and the nephew of Alan, is sweetly goofy as the sensitive guy who can’t quite get the girls and Jonathan Hogan nicely conveys the conflicting emotions roiling within the professor. But neither they nor director James Warwick can keep the story from plodding along scene-after-scene, nowhere near as involving as the Congressional hearings that helped to inspire them 18 years ago.

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