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

"Love

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

literature

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

impeccable

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.

Seymour

accuses Porter of "admitting a snake into our earthly

paradise."

(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,"

she replies.

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

married

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

students

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

the Charles.")

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

Seymour

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,

unfocused.

Nor does the play feel weighty or emotionally moving. But it’s funny,

nonetheless, liberally peppered with generally predictable laugh

lines,

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

Human Events, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston

Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. The world premiere of A.R.

Gurney’s

latest play. Through February 4. $24 to $40.


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