Corrections or additions?
This review by Joan Crespit was prepared for the January 17,
2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Review: `Human Events’
Human Events," A.R. Gurney’s latest play, takes
its title partly from the Declaration of Independence ("When in
the course of human events") but more fully, and with typical
Gurney wit, from the word "humanities" as in "Humanities
Department." The play, a world premiere, is running now through
February 4 at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick prior to
its New York engagement.
Artistic director David Saint directs at a fast pace, moving scenes
along fluidly. He makes use of all areas of James Youman’s versatile
set, the angled professorial office with books at center stage, halls
assumed around it, private dwellings at the sides, all set before
a big stage-wide photo of Cambridge buildings.
Gurney, the author of numerous plays and winner of many awards, was
earlier known as the author of plays about upper crust WASP society
("The Dining Room," "The Cocktail Hour"). His recent
plays include the delightful "Sylvia," about a dog, and
Letters." Last season George Street presented a reading of his
stirring family story, "Ancestral Voices."
"Human Events" begins with the settled world of the Humanities
Department of a large technical institute along the Charles River
in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the early 1970s. (Gurney taught
for 20 years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.) Into this
world, where the humanities faculty teaches "the old one-two"
(two required semesters of the humanities from these science students)
comes a young, polished Britisher in suit and tie and with an
upper class British accent. He’s Christopher Simpson (smoothly and
convincingly played by Patrick Fitzgerald).
Chris arrives with a self-written letter noting his experience at
Eton and Oxford. He assumes an appointment with Seymour Blum, who
is away. (Most of the students are also away, protesting the Vietnam
War.) Chris protests to the tenured Porter Platt (Jack Gilpin) that
he’s come 3,000 miles for the appointment, so Porter, being helpful
and hospitable, sets up a meeting for him to meet faculty that Friday
afternoon and invites Chris to stay at his house, although his wife
Nancy (well-played by Kathleen McNenny) finds it inconvenient. Chris
also, without being given warning, teaches part of Porter’s lecture
course on the "Odyssey," and the students love him. He’s made
each one feel as if he or she were Odysseus.
When Anita DeVita (Anne DeSalvo) rushes in to say that her lover,
a much-younger graduate student, has had his draft deferment revoked,
a teaching position opens up. The faculty — Porter and Anita (who
needs sex to teach and asks if Chris is married) — want to hire
Chris, who’s gone back to England. Only Seymour (a stocky, gray-haired
man, passionately and warmly played by Tim Jerome) opposes hiring
Chris. He yields on the hiring, but he continues to oppose Chris.
Chris, this smooth, self-promoting Britisher, isn’t. He’s an impostor,
from Rhodesia, and his experience at Eton and Oxford is limited to
coaching rugby there. Yet it’s Chris who is the play’s catalyst. He
seems to want nothing but a job, then jobs as they open up. Heedless
opportunist, secretive about himself, he upsets the department.
accuses Porter of "admitting a snake into our earthly
(Porter, meanwhile, is pressured to publish a book he’s writing but
lacks interest in.) Chris’s classes are popular with the students
— he has 43 in his Shakespeare scenes classes (with a paperback
reading list that totals five dollars) — but at least one student
cries to Seymour that she wants to transfer out of Chris’s class to
his own. She’s fallen in love with Chris. "How do I know you won’t
fall in love with me?" he asks. "Don’t worry about that,"
Meanwhile Chris, who has gone hitchhiking across country, sends a
battery of postcards from his trip out west. Come fall, he struts
on in jeans, flannel shirt, and a Stetson. But the faculty believes
they’ll be rid of him — he doesn’t have a green card. He doesn’t
need one, says the disappointed Anita, he has married an American
— a Native American. And more deception: the newlywed Chris
as soon as his divorce was final.
Chris’s status continues to rise. He scores points with
the dean, the trustees, and the college president when he brings
in Shakespearean garb to perform scenes from "As You Like It."
He eventually takes over Seymour’s course.
Finally, Porter turns on Chris, too, castigating himself for having
brought him in, and lamenting that "the greats of literature —
they could kill." He cannot.
Not only does Gurney lampoon Americans being taken in by an English
accent, he touches on the ’70s preoccupation with the Self, with being
gay, with a WASP’s resentment of Jewishness. (Porter says to the Jew,
Seymour, "Sometimes I feel everybody here is Jewish but me."
Seymour’s immediate reply: "Everybody is. Welcome to Yeshiva on
Chris’s star rises further when the dean leaves to take the job at
Brown (no required curriculum), and he becomes acting dean. But it
is Chris who becomes the humanities department hero, saving it from
being disbanded with his impassioned speech, in his British accent.
He talks of the Greeks, Descartes, the great humanists (a copy of
Bartlett’s has disappeared from the department office). Now even
gives Chris grudging respect.
Porter’s star falls. At Dean Chris’s party, he gives Chris "the
old one-two" — a punch in the jaw. The mild-mannered professor
has turned violent.
"Human Events" purports to be variously about trust, about
people using people, about knowing oneself, about all loyalties being
political, about life being more than university politics and climbing
the academic ladder, about our being strangers to one another all
of the time. Touching on so many agendas, it seems scattershot,
Nor does the play feel weighty or emotionally moving. But it’s funny,
nonetheless, liberally peppered with generally predictable laugh
and the characters are well drawn.
Although "the old one-two" bites the dust, the curriculum
is more flexible. Anita discovers she can teach without sex and Chris
ever upholds the humanities. "What good are the humanities?"
asks a hostile member of the science faculty. "What good is a
baby?" is Chris’s nimble and effective reply.
— Joan Crespi
Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. The world premiere of A.R.
latest play. Through February 4. $24 to $40.
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