1970s college-student upheaval rocks academia for laughs, in A.R. Gurney’s ‘Office hours’

By Jennifer Farrar, AP
Friday, October 1, 2010

Students kickin’ the old school in ‘Office Hours’

NEW YORK — “Throw the bums out!” — an expression usually associated with baseball or politics — is the threatened fate of those “dead white males” once regarded as sacred giants of Western literature in A.R. Gurney’s new comedy, “Office Hours.”

It may also be the fate of those who study and teach about “the Western tradition.” Gurney presents a fondly mocking look back at academic life during a seminal time in America’s cultural history, in this slight but literate and funny play, which opened Thursday for a limited run at the off-off-Broadway Flea Theater.

As sweeping social and political upheaval of the early 1970s emboldens college students to challenge every aspect of the required curriculum, tenuous academic careers in the Humanities department at a prestigious American university suddenly hang in the balance.

The insular concerns of academia are familiar to Gurney, who once taught literature at MIT. His play covers a single semester, set in the offices of various junior faculty members, as they conduct sometimes-fractious meetings with students and worriedly discuss the fluctuating literature curriculum with one another.

Every scene contains comic overtones, even though the teachers feel that traditional methods and subjects are like a sinking ship that’s also torpedoing their chances for tenure.

Some bemoan the fact that once-revered philosophers like Plato, Aeschylus, Homer and St. Augustine are being tossed aside because their complex, dated ideas just don’t resonate with this empowered new generation of kids. Other teachers eagerly adapt their teaching style to try to engage bored students. “They always sit up when the subject is sex,” a confident instructor named Hal (Bjorn Dupaty) tells his despairing colleague Tim (Wilton Yeung.)

Two alternating casts of The Bats, members of the Flea’s young resident company, enthusiastically portray either junior college instructors or students. Each handles four or five roles in neatly structured scenes that gently overlap into one another.

In the section titled “Dante,” Holly Chou is effervescent as a mid-term replacement instructor who becomes comically enraptured by the romantic ideals of her more seasoned colleague, Angelina. Maren Langdon gives a lovely performance as bohemian Angelina, who is happily and openly conducting a “scandalous” affair with “a major scholar in the History Department,” played by Yeung. Both were married to others when they fell in love while teaching Dante together. The pair is so steeped in their erudite subject matter that they dramatically compare their own rather mundane lives to scenes from Dante’s epic works.

Dupaty is very funny in “The Bible, a brief scene about an instructor who feels increasingly embattled with his students, as various student religious groups have complained to the dean about each section of the Bible that he tries to teach. He gets weepy while discussing the Epistles of Paul, because he loves Paul’s “warmth,” even though the Course Committee has just suggested that Paul be skipped entirely on the grounds that he’s anti-Semitic.

Expert direction by the Flea’s artistic director, Jim Simpson, keeps the vignettes lively, while helping the actors create distinct personalities for each character. Typical of Gurney, there’s no real high-blown drama until late in the semester, when a former student, Ross, (played with restraint by Raul Sigmund Julia,) who’s apparently had a mental breakdown, physically confronts his former literature teacher. The escalation of danger feels out of step with the rest of the play, but the director and cast defuse it with humorous overtones. Betsy Lippitt gives one of several thoughtful performances here, as a teacher who distracts Ross by humorously quoting Shakespeare to calm him down.

Julia is also impressive in a scene with Yeung, where he plays a gay student boldly trying to persuade his repressed teacher to come out of the closet and attend the next Gay Alliance meeting.

Even if you never saw a slide-rule, you’ll enjoy this often-amusing look at the ups and downs of beleaguered academics buffeted by the tides of a societal revolution.

Online: www.theflea.org/

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