Corrections or additions?

This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper

on April 29, 1998. All rights reserved.

Review: `Council of Thirty’

In Bob Clyman’s topical new play, "The Council

of Thirty," a child custody hearing takes a devastating turn when

one unguarded remark takes on a life of its own. The playwright, a

clinical psychologist who specializes in child custody cases, apparently

knows first hand what happens when litigants get going in a custody

case. But it’s what happens in Clyman’s dramatized frame that concerns

us. When we ask why his theme is expressed so cleanly as to be its

own story, the answer is simple: The arguments and confrontations

illuminated within the play’s tightly riveted scenes are at once valuable,

dramatic, individualized, and arresting.

Central to the story is John Burroughs, a dedicated, respected teacher

of classics at a private boy’s school, who puts his heart and soul

into his lectures. As the drama opens, the 40-ish, personable Burroughs

(Reed Birney) has draped a sheet, toga-style, over his suit to bring

a little dramatic flair to his talk on Socrates to his class of 12-year-olds.

The play’s title alludes to the Athenian council that condemned the

morals and ethics of Socrates, who, in consideration of his own feelings

and attitudes about sex between men and boys in ancient Greece, expounded

a philosophical system of doubt and questioning to reveal his society’s

hidden ignorance. There is every reason for set designer R. Michael

Miller to have chosen huge white stone blocks carved with Grecian

figures to cast the disquieting shadow of the Athenian state over

the contemporary functional world before it. And the reasons to see

this play as a modern Greek tragedy become clear.

After his divorce, John has just won custody of his four-year-old

son (who we never see) because Beth (Kristen Griffith), the boy’s

mother is an alcoholic. "I haven’t had a drink in months,"

says the distraught — but lying — Beth, in her desperate but

futile attempt to convince John to let her have the boy on weekends.

"We’ve got to get on with our lives," is John’s cold, if also

responsible, response. So begins a series of short, sharply punctuated

scenes that illustrate not only the reversal of Beth’s situation,

but also the downward spiral of John’s life.

Tutored by yet another lawyer who insists that she go for 30 days’

rehabilitation, Beth is ready to take the offensive. Especially now

that her lawyer has received a letter from social services. It seems

that the results of the child’s psychological evaluation suggest sexual

abuse.

As Beth begins to re-frame remembered incidents, she also feels empowered

to make claims to the court. There is an undercurrent of tension felt

as John’s position in his school is suddenly at risk, in particular

when the headmaster questions him on why he spent so much of his lecture

on Socrates on the philosopher’s "yen for the boys." It isn’t

a frivolous conceit that Clyman gives some consideration to John’s

budding relationship with the pretty professor who means to be his

lover and ally.

Uncovering the truth propels the play. When an innocent

act of touching gets thrown out of proportion, John’s son is taken

away from him, put in foster care, and a custody evaluation is begun.

In contrast to Beth, who has gone through rehab, John loses more and

more self-control during the evaluation, as circumstantial evidence

begins to mount. John’s funny and scary scene with an unctuous loan

shark emphasizes his financial plight, and the drastic steps an accused

person may have to go to pay for legal assistance. In another, even

more harrowing scene, John is jailed for violating a court order not

to see his son, and meets a doctor in the next cell who admits to

being a pedophile.

Don’t be surprised if you see "The Council of Thirty" advertised

with the banner, "Torn from Today’s Headlines." One need only

to have read the article in the Metro Section of the April 19 edition

of the New York Times to see the complexity and immediacy of Clyman’s

provocative subject. That newspaper article brings to light the pending

law suit filed against a psychiatrist who, after a fateful therapy

session, failed to reveal to his colleagues that his patient, a practicing

child psychiatrist, was a pedophile. Was Clyman clairvoyant, or unwittingly

referring to this case in this scene?

Under Wendy Liscow’s fluid direction, Birney is excellent as John,

the gentle bookish kind of man, trapped by his own doubts, and ill-equipped

to advocate for himself. Griffith is effective as Beth, the bright

but damaged woman caught up in the flow of accumulating accusations

against John. Elaine Bromka and Richmond Hoxie brings variety and

reality to their multiple assignments as various contributing professionals.

— Simon Saltzman

The Council of Thirty, George Street Playhouse,

9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. $24 to $32. Continues

to May 3.


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