Wednesday, May 6, 2009



By Jonathan Marc Sherman. Directed by James Warwick. South Ark Stage at Beckett Theatre. (CLOSED)

Critics are lukewarm to chilly toward this revival of Jonathan Marc Sherman's youthful play, originally staged at Playwrights Horizons in 1993 with Austin Pendleton, Ethan Hawke, Calista Flockhart, and Anthony Rapp. The play gets rapped for a disjointed structure--it starts as a campus sexual-harassment mystery, then becomes an episodic dorm-party hangout--and though a few critics are respectful of the new production's performances, particularly Jonathan Hogan's, most find the overall effect at best mildly intriguing, at worst tedious.

CurtainUp B+
(Deirdre Donovan) Strangely, the sexual scandal gets dramatically downplayed after the early scenes. The author shifts the center of the play to the four undergraduates, who spring to life in dissolute detail...Sophistry is at its best when it focuses on the three male friends, Willy (Maximillian Osinski), Igor (Ian Alda), and Ex (Charlie Hewson). Whether they are strumming guitars, trying to pick-up young women, or break-up with them, their language and antics evoke the real atmosphere of the laid-back college life of the '90s...All things considered this new production from South Ark Stage is not new enough to escape being dated. Still, director James Warwick gets high marks for coherently gathering the loose ends and black holes in the drama and the energetic actors rate an A plus.

Theatermania B
(David Finkle) Having introduced the ugly episode -- variations of which have since been seen elsewhere in such plays as David Mamet's Oleanna and John Patrick Shanley's Doubt -- Sherman leads the audience to expect a fully-developed, lid-blowing-off probing of the ramifications. Instead, he shunts it aside to study several undergrads tangentially caught up in the embarrassing fracas...Ultimately, the scandal recedes until it's only part of what affects the characters' daily lives. We then realize that Sherman's main point is to show -- as accurately as he knew at the time -- the extent that drug use, alcohol, sexual behavior, and general distraction compromised learning at an unfortunately lax teaching institution. As a result of this theatrical bait-and-switch, the play is now most valuable as a showcase for young actors to market their wares -- and director James Warwick knows how to get the best from his cast. Indeed, the real joy of Sophistry is watching Hewson beg Smith's forgiveness, Knepp corner Dolan, Osinski play stoned cut-up, Alda reveal his pre-graduation fears, Carbanaro expose Jack's loutishness, and Kakkar show how acutely a young woman of easy virtue is on to herself.

Backstage C+
(David Sheward) Individually, pieces of Sophistry are periodically intriguing, titillating, and even moving, but they fail to create a satisfying whole...Though director James Warwick elicits fine performances from his company, which also includes Maximilian Osinski in a memorably comic turn as a drugged-out slacker, the staging does not have the sort of tautness needed to make the episodic play compelling theatregoing and more than an intellectual exercise. It's the sort of theatre that inspires appreciation, particularly from those with fond memories of their days on the debate team. C+
(David Ian Lee) With diminishing dramatic thrust and almost no perspective beyond the confines of dormitory life, Sophistry amounts to little more than a series of vignettes in search of a narrative. With a talented cast and outstanding production values (including dead-on period costumes by Melissa Schlachtmeyer and a surprisingly versatile set by Charles Corcoran) it is unfortunate that Sophistry has so little to say, and so sophomoric voice with which to say it...After a zippy first act that clocks in comfortably at under an hour, Act Two all but abandons this narrative in favor of scenes of dormitory wooings and wailings...This staging is not helped by director James Warwick's decision to punctuate every scene change—and there are many—with snippets of popular music 15 years gone-by.

Talkin' Broadway C-
(Matthew Murray) A subtle, tricky, superficially plausible, but generally fallacious play that’s interesting more for who was in its original cast than for the ideas it proposes or the boundaries it breaks...Seems more like a collection of seams than it does a tapestry depicting selfishness and uncertainty at two of life’s turning points. Sherman’s attempts to draw parallels between the experiences of a quintet of straight young people preparing for graduation from a New England college and the professor who’s been accused of molesting one of their peers would be iffy under the best of circumstances. But other structural issues prevent circumstances from ever even getting good...You’re not aware of where Sherman is trying to go until you realize that he hasn’t quite gotten there. To be fair, Sherman wrote the play in his early 20s, so a few failures in experimenting with form and style are to be expected. But such explorations don’t guarantee anything workable, and not much of Sophistry ultimately works. That’s true even in this well-intentioned and decently realized production, which James Warwick has sensibly if unexcitingly directed...The most natural element here is Jonathan Hogan, who plays Whitey.

Lighting & Sound America C-
(David Barbour) Until the intermission, despite a few implausibilities -- Would Ex and Whitey really be close friends? What did Robin ever see in Ex? -- Sophistry is a reasonably intriguing piece that fairly skillfully keeps you guessing about where the truth really lies. However, it collapses almost entirely in Act II, in which the Whitey narrative almost vanishes, to be replaced with an obvious, unamusing sex comedy involving Robin, Ex, and her friend Debbie...The longer it goes on, the more Sophistry seems to have no structure at all. It's really a disconnected series of scenes, a set of variations on the themes of power and seduction -- but none of the author's observations are fresh or pointed enough to really grab one's attention. Nevertheless, the director, James Warwick, has assembled a strong cast that makes the most of the script's opportunities...But really, shouldn't a play about a sex scandal have more tension, more narrative drive?

New Yorker C-
It’s hard to imagine a less timely revival than Jonathan Marc Sherman’s 1993 play, about hedonistic undergrads at a New England college and sexual-harassment allegations made against a beloved philosophy professor by an unstable student. It’s clear what must have seemed fresh then—hard-drinking undergrads hooking up, making your-mother jokes, smoking from bongs, coming to the defense of a beloved gay professor—material buoyed by its cultural immediacy and fuelled by the energy of young stars like Ethan Hawke. But despite solid performances by the veteran actor Jonathan Hogan, as the professor, and Ian Alda, as a neurotic student, this production, directed by James Warwick, doesn’t have the zip to punch up what comedy there is or to obscure the flaws in the script.

Variety D+
(Marilyn Stasio) 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...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.

New York Post D
(Frank Scheck) Sherman was of college age himself when he wrote "Sophistry" -- he appeared in the original production -- and the play does seem authentic in its dialogue and characterizations. But it's a distinctly minor affair, minus the star power of the original cast. One exception is Ian Alda (Alan's nephew), terrific as a nebbish whose self-deprecating one-liners get the evening's biggest laughs.

Time Out NY D
(David Cote) These portraits in arrested male development might be compelling if they felt like real characters or expressed themselves in terms that rose above a mediocre screenplay...Sherman’s dialogue is skillful if callow, and when the work premiered 16 years ago with a cast that included Ethan Hawke, Calista Flockhart and Austin Pendleton, it generated more heat than this blandly acted and stiffly directed version possibly could. It’s only a lesson on how not to revive a play.

Talk Entertainment F+
(Oscar E Moore) If you have to feel sorry for someone other than the actors appearing in Sophistry or the author of the play Jonathan Marc Sherman or the people who have paid good money to sit in the Beckett Theatre being bored out of their minds for almost two hours (one ten minute intermission – where you can escape from this tedium) please remember Anastasia – the only one that one feels some compassion for in this poor excuse of a play which has just been revived on Theatre Row...Anastasia is the pet gold fish of Robin (Natalie Knepp)...There are actually two plays playing simultaneously and neither one pays off. The realistic set of two dorm rooms impedes the quick scene changes needed. The lighting helps a bit.

CurtainUp B+ 11; Theatermania B 10; Backstage C+ 8; C+ 8; Talkin' Broadway C- 6; Lighting & Sound America C- 6; NYer C- 6; Variety D+ 5; New York Post D 4; TONY D 4; Talk Entertainment F+ 2; 70/11=6.36 (C-)

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