A.R. Gurney’s smartly comic look at university life (and the Greek classics) circa the late 1980s gets a welcome if imperfect revival at The Group Rep, one that could benefit from a more assured directorial vision and a more credible female lead performance.
College professor Henry Harper (Doug Haverty) has been teaching Greek tragedy for decades, so this is not the first time that a student has submitted his or her own version of Sophocles’ Antigone for credit.
Still, Henry can’t help but be taken aback by the sheer chutzpah displayed by soon-to-graduate Judy Miller (Natalia Santamaria) in insisting that he accept her 12-page playlet (Antigone Vs. The Nuclear Arms Race) in place of the actual assignment, a paper about Greek tragedy and not simply “Another Antigone.”
Straight-A business major Judy isn’t about to take no for an answer, however, even if the Incomplete that Henry promises will mean forfeiting graduation and, worse still, the internship she’s been promised at Morgan Guarantee Trust in NYC, and so Judy decides to wrangle up some student actors and put on a show she’s convinced will blow Henry away and give him no choice but to award her with an A.
Not surprisingly, news of Judy’s play-producing endeavors (starring its writer in the title role no less) reaches Dean Diana (Debi Tinsley), until now a staunch Henry supporter despite occasional student complaints that by focusing on what he insists are simply the “two fundamental themes in Western culture, the Greek and the Hebraic, public honor vs. private conscience,” he has displayed anti-Semitic attitudes in class.
Nonsense, protests Henry, until Diana reminds him that since the school depends on the generosity of its Jewish alumni, he could well see both of his classes become the next victims of a cutback on “undersubscribed” courses.
And so, like King Creon before him, Henry finds himself in combat mode against a young upstart willing to risk everything for what she sees as right, aided in her battle by boyfriend Dave (Louis Schneider), whose love of the classics could well turn him into an unexpected Henry ally. (Did I mention that Diana just happens to be Jewish?)
Playwright Gurney (Love Letters, The Cocktail Hour, The Dining Room) clearly knows academia like the back of his hand, and most of the Group Rep cast do Another Antigone justice, despite some occasional line fluffing that suggests not quite enough rehearsal before opening weekend.
Haverty is a natural as Henry, resisting any temptation towards pomposity, but simply playing him as a man who knows his subject, knows what he expects from his students, and isn’t afraid to say “No” when “Yes” is not an option.
Tinsley does fine work too as a former professor who, forced to mediate between an old friend and a student who may just have a point or two, discovers that administration may not be all it’s cracked up to be.
Schneider’s thoroughly appealing Dave is another winner. Santamaria’s Judy, on the other hand, comes across too featherbrained, at least under Linda Alznauer’s direction, to be believably summa cum laude, and Judy’s overacting as “Antigone” could be toned down as well.
As written, Another Antigone flows seamlessly from scene to scene. Not so Alznauer’s production, which features one blackout after another after another, and worse still, has each one executed in dead silence.
Scenic designer Diana Martin has made excellent use of The Group Rep’s newly converted “Upstairs At The Rep” space with an elegantly furnished three-locale set, and Martin’s costumes are topnotch as well. Lighting by Robert McCollum and J. Kent Inasy is a work in progress, lights having been installed the morning of opening weekend. Steve Shaw’s sound design would be far more effective if it featured musical underscoring and paid greater attention to minor details like an intercom that actually talks back when you push a button.
Another Antigone is produced for The Group Rep by Richard Alan Woody. Stage manager Ceirra Burton and assistant stage manager Craig Umhoefer understudy the roles of Judy and Dave.
Ultimately, this maiden “Upstairs At The Rep” production is worth seeing if only for the chance to experience a rarely staged Gurney gem. With stronger direction and a more credible Judy, it could have been more.
The Group Rep, Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Boulevard, North Hollywood.
January 3, 2105
Photos: Troy Whitaker