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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
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
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to May 3.
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