LA Theater Review: SEX AND EDUCATION (Victory Theatre Center’s Big Victory in Burbank)

by Tony Frankel on July 23, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles

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WHEN GOOD ENOUGH IS NOT ENOUGH

The Los Angeles Times needs to be a player on the world stage and therefore assigns Critic-at-Large Charles McNulty to review plays in NYC and London. While this may exasperate the local theatre community (which desperately needs and deserves coverage), McNulty’s reviews and recent commentary on the ladies of the London stage illuminate an issue that many would rather not address: On the whole, theatre actors in Los Angeles lack the spark, breadth and profundity of those in London, New York and Chicago. One can only hypothesize why this is so: L.A. lacks the energy and buzz associated with a compact theatre world and we have a plethora of film actors, etc., but rare is the performance that, according to McNulty, has dexterity with a turn of phrase, unerring literary poise, emotional accessibility, intimidating authority and the ability to embody the manifold contradictions at the heart of the drama.

Sex and Education - Victory Theatre Center’s Big Victory in BurbankWithout being snarky, the word that crosses my mind for a good deal of acting outside of the aforementioned cities is “serviceable.”

A less than stellar performance can also highlight a play’s weaknesses, as is the case with Lissa Levin’s likeable but problematic west coast premiere, Sex and Education, now on at the Victory Theatre Center. This production is a perfect example of serviceable acting when that spark of divine fire is called for. Indeed, it turns out that the star of the show is the subject matter, not the actors.

It’s a great premise: In the final moments of a long teaching career, Miss Edwards (Maria Gobetti) has discovered a lecherous, insulting note being passed by Joe Marks (Kanin Guntzelman), the high school basketball player who is headed for the big time in college. Edwards keeps the jock after school, threatening to fail him lest he craft a compelling piece of composition from the poorly-constructed note. She doesn’t have a problem with the note’s four-letter words or his sexual enticement towards his cheerleader girlfriend (a spot-on Jessica McKee), just the grammatical framework. The snappy dialogue can be funny and insightful, and stands to delight anyone who is interested in the art of persuasive writing, but the play skirts character development for what is essentially an interesting course in English.

The script’s structure is problematic right off the bat: the teacher passes out the final test on every desk in this classroom, yet only Marks and the cheerleader are present (we are left to imagine the existence of the other students). Levin then has the teacher unnecessarily break the fourth wall to offer world-weary insights and anecdotes to us – information that would have fared much better had it been incorporated in the dialogue. As she talks to us, the note-passing begins and the student is caught. A much more interesting choice would be to have lights up on the teacher (with note in hand) explaining to the student why he has been asked to stay after class.

Sex and Education - Victory Theatre Center’s Big Victory in BurbankThere is also a device involving the cheery cheerleader: she breaks scenes – pom-poms in hand – to elucidate the rules of composition. While it has inherent charms, this mechanism interrupts the play’s momentum (can you imagine a teacher coming in to annotate in Mamet’s Oleanna?). The script’s need for a dramaturge, combined with unsuitable casting in the two lead roles, makes this a show that never crackles, but only pops intermittently, like an old bag of microwavable popcorn in the teacher’s lounge.

The plot and some of the life lessons are nonetheless compelling. The acting, however, was not – it was serviceable. Guntzelman looks like he’s closer to 30 than high school age; therefore he needs to be more than the eye-rolling, disaffected youth – we missed the raging testosterone and the manic fear that his basketball career is really in jeopardy. For example, why wasn’t he moving around the room, trying to shoot at imaginary baskets? His approach was almost cinematic – a self-contained and superficial dumb jock may work on film, but theatre demands a wholly different style. (Let me add that Guntzelman is the son of playwright Levin and director Dan Guntzelman, which speaks volumes about the casting.)

Maria Gobetti is the artistic director at the Victory, and in the program she thanks Kanin Guntzelman for recommending her for the role. Unfortunately, the task of remembering all of that dialogue while creating a three-dimensional character appears insurmountable to her. Doubly difficult are the times when she speaks face-front: these are moments which call for internalized innovation, yet Ms. Gobetti riffs to us in the same manner that she speaks to her student – a manner which is somewhat appealing and non-threatening. If the intention was to have the audience be an extension of her classroom, it would have heightened the drama if she scared the shit out of us.

Sex and Education - Victory Theatre Center’s Big Victory in BurbankFor this overly-wordy play to escape the realm of didacticism, we need an actress that can plumb the depths of the human experience. We are watching the final moments in a woman’s life career, her last gasping breath as she watches the art of communication decay, her very last opportunity to be heard, to make a difference, to fight for what she believes in. Instead, her relationship with the boy comes off with the same urgency that she uses to pack up her belongings. What of the fear that her 36 years of teaching were for naught? What of the anger that someone so intelligent can be so disrespected? What of the vulnerability that comes with a new career goal so late in life (in this case, real estate)? What of the sadness and grief generated by the younger generation’s insouciance toward the English language? This, of course, makes it all the more jarring when the teacher seems to stumble over her own words (even more alarming is that Gobetti went up on her lines at least a dozen times so late in the show’s run).

There may have been wisps of smoke that arose from the clash of wills, but we need an inferno which could arise from a testosterone-driven boy who is testing his boundaries and a defiant, whip-cracking teacher (think Zoe Caldwell and her students in McNally’s Master Class). Mr. Guntzelman and the esteemed Ms. Gobetti are certainly capable performers, but the lack of urgency and drama causes the evening to miss its chance at catharsis. The play’s flaws can be fixed, but an actress of fire and ice would have made them barely perceptible. Leaving the theatre, it was a shame that all I heard from audience members was, “Where does she get that energy?”

tonyfrankel @ stageandcinema.com

photos by Nancy Savan

Sex and Education
scheduled to end on August 7
for tickets visit http://www.thevictorytheatrecenter.org or call 818.841.5421

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