The venerable Colony Theatre enters the 21st Century with a 4-letter-word-propelled bang as it reaches out to extend its subscriber base beyond the blue-hair set with an envelope-pushing production of Lissa Levin’s Sex And Education.
If this title sounds familiar, it’s probably because Sex And Education already had its 2011 West Coast Premiere just five minutes from the Colony at Burbank’s Victory Theatre, and though I must confess to being less enamored of Levin’s play than those whose raves doubtless helped convince Colony Artistic Director Barbara Beckley to give Sex And Education a regional theater staging, this kind of small-to-big transfer is something that ought to be happening more often to well-reviewed plays debuting in our 99-seat theater scene.
But I digress.
The envelope-pushing starts almost from the get-go as longtime high school English teacher Miss Edwards (Stephanie Zimbalist) intercepts a note being passed from basketball star Joe (William Reinbold) to his cheerleader girlfriend Hannah (Allison Lindsey) during a final exam that marks not only the end of the school year, but the very last day of Miss Edwards’ twenty-five year teaching career.
Though Miss Edwards could easily choose to fail Joe for the note’s concluding sentence, a plea for Hannah to give him the answer to a multiple-choice question about Mark Twain’s real name (“A, B, C, or none of the above? Like I care.”), she decides to keep him after class and teach him a lesson, one we correctly assume will be as much life lesson as grammar review, though truth be told, Joe’s use of English vocabulary and structure could clearly use some remedial help.
But first Miss Edwards reads Joe’s note aloud, and if Colony subscribers have heard the words “ shit,” “a-hole” (Joe’s abbreviation, not mine), “cunt, “asswipe,” (Joe’s missing hypen, not mine) “blow job,” and multiple instances of the f-word (“fuck,” “mother-fucking,” and “mother-fucking”) before, it’s certainly not from the Colony stage.
To be fair, playwright Levin’s characters do not speak Mametian English, that is to say that beyond the first reading of Joe’s note, Miss Edwards only repeats his profanity to make her multiple points. Also, to give credit to Colony regulars, only two individuals walked out on Saturday’s performance (and it appeared that the disapproving gentleman’s wife might rather have stuck around). The times do indeed seem to be a-changin’, and kudos to Beckley and the Colony for recognizing that their subscribers might actually be more broadminded than might otherwise have been assumed.
What develops over Sex And Education’s ninety-minutes, told pretty much in real time and ably directed by Andrew Barnicle, turns out rather akin to the character interaction of previous Colony smashes like Trying, Educating Rita, and Grace And Glorie, “odd couple” comedies in which a pair of characters find themselves changing and growing as human beings as a result of knowing each other.
Fed up with students who couldn’t care less about learning, Miss Edwards is about to embark on a career in real estate, though more as a way out of teaching than as a way towards anything of value. Joe, on the other hand, has his future set for him, and quite a future it is—a free ride (and a Subaru) to play with the University Of North Carolina Tar Heels.
And there’s the rub, because all Miss Edwards has to do is fail Joe and it’s Goodbye Graduation, Goodbye Scholarship, Goodbye Future. Or is it? Does golden boy Joe already have a strong enough GPA to withstand an F in English? Or does it even matter when Joe’s successful graduation would mean so much to both his high school and the university that has sought him out?
In any case, Joe sticks around for what turns out to be more than just a grammar lesson (the verb “be” is not an adjective), but also a discussion of style (he’s mixing his metaphors when he calls his teacher an “A-hole cunt”), a lesson on rhetoric (exactly what is it that makes for a successful expository essay?), and a vocabulary lesson (Joe not only learns the verb “extrapolate,” he actually uses it in a sentence).
Ultimately, what Miss Edwards “extrapolates” from Joe’s note is that his ultimate goal is not to insult his teacher and her class but to persuade Hannah to have sex with him: “Whatya say five minutes after they read off the last name and hand Doug Zenicky, that fat fuck, his diploma, we chuck the beyond gay cap and gown and make you a woman under the mother-fucking bleachers we can kiss goodbye, unless you’re free tonight.”
Now, if only Joe would be so good as to rewrite the above with a topic sentence, three supporting sentences, a conclusion, and no mention of his pre-test “primo dump,” Miss Edwards might just have a change of heart about giving him an F.
Not surprisingly, the above setup serves primarily as a means for our two dueling protagonists to get to know each other better. Joe taps into Miss Edwards’ fears that the last quarter-century of her life has been a waste, while Miss Edwards comes to discover (surprise!) that there is more to jock Joe that meets the eye.
I enjoyed Sex And Education, though not as much as I was hoping to going in. Both Miss Edwards and Joe break the fourth wall to offer comments and observations far more than is necessary, so much so that lighting designer Jared A. Sayeg (whose lighting cleverly shifts between realistic to surreal to accommodate these asides) and sound board operator Brian Cordoba have a hard time keeping up, meaning that too often either teacher or student does some brief fourth wall-breaking while the lighting remains bright.
I also expected more intensity and clarity from Miss Edwards. Part of this can be attributed to Levin’s script, which like Miss Edwards can’t seem to decide what its/her goal is—to correct Joe’s grammar, to inspire him with a desire to learn, to help him de-virginize himself and Hannah? Part of this lies on leading lady Zimbalist’s shoulders. I have loved Zimbalist’s work before, most notably in Rubicon Theatre productions of Steel Magnolias and You Can’t Take It With You. Here she is good, but more fire and focus could make for a richer, tighter, more compelling performance.
As cheerleader Hannah, Lindsey isn’t given all that much to do for the first hour or so of Sex And Education except for a series of cheers relating to points Miss Edwards is trying to make. It’s a cute gimmick, but so overused that you’d need the world’s peppiest cheerleader to make it work, and UCI theater grad Lindsey is a better actress than cheerleader, proving herself quite terrific indeed once it’s just Hannah and Joe center-stage in the play’s final segment.
There is absolutely nothing to quibble about in Reinbold’s captivating, charismatic performance, as star-making a turn as I’ve seen on the Colony stage. Not only is the statuesque Reinbold physically convincing as a glory-bound basketballer, his striking boy-next-door good looks bode well for career success on either stage or screen. Add to this some formidable acting chops (Joe’s monolog about how the challenges of basketball mirror the challenges of life itself) is positively mesmerizing. I’d only seen Reinbold’s work once before, in a minor role in Theatricum Botanicum’s Tartuffe. I now cannot wait to see it again.
Trefoni Michael Rizzi’s scenic design is an inspired one, the Colony stage expanded to maximum width to plop Miss Edwards’ classroom smack dab in the middle of a basketball court, the classroom floor a giant sized sheet of yellow lined paper. Sayeg’s lighting design, except for those timing glitches, is as splendidly imaginative as ever, and matched by Drew Dalzell’s ever ingenious sound design. Kudos too to Jon McElveney’s classroom-centric properties design and set decoration. Dianne K. Graebner has only three costumes to design but each fits its character to a T. (That being said, Joe’s combination of sky-blue t-shirt under maroon sweats, while possibly reflecting Joe’s disinterest in color coordination, proved less than eye-pleasing to this reviewer.)
Dale Alan Cooke is production stage manager. Patricia Cullen is casting director. Robert T. Kyle is technical director.
Though I ended up finding Sex And Education not quite up to Colony standards, I can only applaud Beckley & Company’s daring in challenging their audience with saltier language and subject matter than has been the case up till now. Its high school setting and pair of young actors in leading roles could make Sex And Education more appealing than usual to the younger audiences whom brand-new Colony development director Karan Kendrick will surely want to be attracting, in addition to a more ethnically and culturally diverse new bunch of subscribers.
Sex And Education may not merit as high a score as I was hoping to give it, but I’ll give it a solid B, and whenever Reinbold takes the spotlight, an A .
Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street, Burbank.
February 22, 2014
Photos: Michael Lamont