An accusation of plagiarism is but the opening shot in Death Of The Author, Steven Drukman’s academia-set World Premiere drama that unfolds like an edge-of-your-seat suspense-thriller from its “gotcha” hook to the unexpectedly satisfying way Drukman manages to tie the whole thing up some ninety minutes later.
All it takes is a quick Google search for young adjunct English prof Jeff (David Clayton Rogers) to come up with proof-positive that about-to-graduate pre-law major Bradley (Austin Butler) has copy-pasted paragraph after paragraph of his term paper on postmodern literature, prompting an immediate student-teacher conference, just the first of a school-mandated three-meeting process to determine not only whether Brad will pass or fail Jeff’s class, but whether he will even be able to don cap and gown at commencement exercises a week hence.
With the proverbial smoking gun in his hand (could a student’s plagiarism be any more blatant and shameless?), Jeff expects nothing less than an immediate, if grudgingly apologetic, admission of guilt. What he gets from Brad is an astonished “You must be kidding” denial, not that he has quoted without citing, but that what he has turned can be called plagiarism in any way, shape, or form.
Could it be that an upbringing as the son of privileged parents, a high school diploma from a Swiss private school, tall-blond-and-handsome looks that could snag him a Tommy Hilfiger contract or the lead in a CW teen soap, a college education at one of America’s finest, and an obvious sense of entitlement have gone to Brad’s pretty head?
At least so it would seem to adjunct prof Jeff, more blue-collar than blue-blooded, stuck down in a former janitor’s closet office and required now to set up a second meeting with department chair J. Trumbull Sykes (Orson Bean) and a possible third with The Dean himself should Jeff not sign an admission of guilt.
Considering the gravity of the situation at hand, it’s hardly surprising that Bradley undergoes a mid-conference panic attack. After all, it’s not just his graduation that’s at stake but his entire future as well.
What Jeff doesn’t expect is for Brad to not only not fear that second meeting, but to demand it, and the sooner the better, for surely an academic as erudite and esteemed as Professor Sykes will understand that what Brad turned in was the farthest thing from plagiarism.
Completing playwright Drukman’s cast of four is fellow graduating senior Sarah (Lyndon Smith), the ex Brad has been pining for since she ended their three-year relationship six months ago, the result of frustration with her boyfriend’s refusal to seek therapy for personal issues that, at least for the attractive English major (with a major case of hero worship for Sykes), ended up too much to handle.
Beware of any review that reveals more plot details than these, for further knowledge of anything other than Drukman’s basic setup will spoil the many surprises the playwright has up his oh-so inventive sleeve.
That being said, the themes driving Death Of The Author are too significant not to be touched on here, not the least of which is the danger of making snap judgments based on stereotypes (and don’t tell me you’ve never been guilty of that).
Jeff assumes the worst of Brad because he’s grown up despising the rich and privileged. Brad assumes the best of Jeff because he’s a great teacher and a nice guy. Heck, he’s even told his students to call him by his first name. Audience members may be guilty of prejudging both of them, or of presupposing whose side Sykes will be on, or of taking for granted why a smart, pretty scholar like Sarah might choose to break up with a plagiarist like Brad. Then comes a revelation about a certain traumatic something in Brad’s past that sets off immediate suspicions that it must be something related to … .
Briefly put, do not expect that your initial sympathies will remain unchanged throughout Death Of An Author’s intermissionless ninety minutes, or that you will be able to predict what happens next—because you won’t.
On the other hand, do expect to be talking about Death Of An Author long after curtain calls, and that includes not only Drukman’s ingenious play and its brain-stimulating themes but also Bart DeLorenzo’s electric, insightful direction and the performances of a pitch-perfect cast made up of an octogenarian stage-and-screen legend, an up-and-coming TV/film actor with a strong stage background, a recent BFA theater grad with a bright career ahead of her, and (perhaps most remarkable of all), a bona fide CW teen soap star who more than holds his own opposite these live theater vets in what is, incredibly, his stage debut.
Could there be a finer choice to play J. Trumbull Sykes than Bean, whose TV career stretches all the way back to the early 1950s, whose persona exudes wit, intelligence, and sophisticated charm, and whose frequent stage appearances well into his 80s have made him an L.A. theater treasure? (That Bean is playing a character written for a man perhaps fifteen years his junior shows just how vital and letter-perfect on-top-of-his-game the master thespian is.)
Rogers is about as TV-lead-ready as any young Hollywood actor could be, having already logged a bunch of regular/recurring series roles over the past ten years in addition to multiple New York stage credits before his move west. A guy-next-door likability makes him a terrific choice to play Jeff, whose darker side comes across all the edgier for being so unexpected. (A Rogers-Butler scene late in the play crackles with such electric energy that it certainly got this reviewer’s juices racing.) Did I mention Rogers’ Grade A acting chops?
With a pair of recurring hit series roles in just the past two years and a couple of big-screen performances in the can, up-and-comer Smith gives Sarah a combination of campus-beauty appeal 4.0-GPA brains that makes her eminently believable as both the object of Brad’s affection and of Sykes’ admiration.
Last but not least is 22-year-old Butler, risking the safety of a thriving TV career (he’s teen hunk Sebastian on the CW’s The Carrie Diaries) for his very first dip into the scary world of live theater—and at the high-profile Geffen Playhouse no less—and proving himself every bit as assured as his more experienced costars at building a character’s entire arc in an almost non-stop hour-and-a-half, and at being “on” and present and listening and reacting and all the other things that make for one memorable performance. Oh, and Butler’s final scene opposite an equally splendid Rogers ended up bringing tears to this reviewer’s eyes when least expected.
I’m not sure what scenic designer Takeshi Kata’s all-mirror set is about, but it looks great (aside from the smudges and streaks that are, I suppose, part and parcel of designing in glass). Lap Chi Chu’s lighting design is as always impeccable, with the production further enhanced by John Ballinger’s suspense-building original music and sound design. Christina Haatainen Jones’ costumes do exactly what great costumes do—they tell us about the characters who wear them, or at the very least, reveal what each character wants the world to see.
Cate Cundiff and Jessica Aguilar are production stage managers. Amy Levinson is dramaturg. Casting (and it’s L.A.-based, thank you Geffen Playhouse!) is by Phyllis Schuringa, CSA.
The roles of J. Trumbull Sykes, Jeff, Sarah, and Bradley are being covered by understudies Don Oscar Smith, Daniel Bess, Kate Hamilton, and Kaiso Hill.
I had several quibbles with Drukman’s most recent SoCal World Premiere, The Prince Of Atlantis at South Coast Repertory. About Death Of An Author I have not a one. It is smart, suspenseful, surprising, downright sensational writing, and with DeLorenzo in the director’s chair and a superb cast giving it added layers and depth, it makes for a play and production I could easily see again and again.
Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Through June 29. Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00, Saturdays at 3:00 and 8:00. Sundays at 2:00 and 7:00. Reservations: 310 208-5454
May 29, 2014
Photos: Michael Lamont