nytheatre.com review by David Ian Lee
April 30, 2009
Were Sophistry a screenplay filmed in the early '90s, it no doubt would have fit comfortably amongst flicks such as Can't Hardly Wait and the oeuvre of Kevin Smith: A photogenic cast of identifiable collegiate types (the idealistic journalist, the awkward romantic, the wacky stoner, etc.) sit around, hitting bongs and swigging from bottles of Jack Daniels, pontificating about who's next to leap into whom's bed, the etymology of band names, and the finer points of "Your Mom" digs. There's a killer soundtrack of more than 20 MTV Buzz Bin hits deployed roughly every four minutes, and at least three pop cultural allusions for every ostentatious reference to Russian literature. The whole affair concludes with a valedictory speech, delivered by a hottie with a killer vocabulary and her pulse on the graduating zeitgeist: Life; woah.
Unfortunately, Sophistry is not an indie film to be enjoyed by college kids during late-night study sessions and rounds of beer pong, but a play by Jonathan Marc Sherman, produced by South Ark Stage and currently playing at the Beckett Theatre. With diminishing dramatic thrust and almost no perspective beyond the confines of dormitory life, Sophistry amounts to little more than a series of vignettes in search of a narrative. With a talented cast and outstanding production values (including dead-on period costumes by Melissa Schlachtmeyer and a surprisingly versatile set by Charles Corcoran) it is unfortunate that Sophistry has so little to say, and so sophomoric voice with which to say it.
Divided into two acts, Sophistry begins strong, initially following the story of a popular professor, Whitey McCoy (Jonathan Hogan), accused by a student, Jack (Michael Carbonaro), of molestation. With elements of a Rashomon-like structure, and seemingly cut from similar cloth as Oleanna and Doubt (though Sherman's yarn predates John Patrick Shanley's by over a decade) provocative questions of guilt, perspective, and accusation are raised.
However, after a zippy first act that clocks in comfortably at under an hour, Act Two all but abandons this narrative in favor of scenes of dormitory wooings and wailings: Xavier "Ex" Reynolds wants to get back with Robin, who is also pursued by Igor, who's friends with Willy (who wants to drink and get high and occasionally smooch Ex), and Debbie might want Ex, but enters the proceedings too late to appear as much more than the Token Ethnic Character. With the storyline of Jack and Whitey relegated to literal walk-on status, the show spins off into malaise and apathy. The problem with malaise and apathy: They don't take very long to establish, and when the play finally comes to a close, there is no profundity in their having dominated the evening.
This staging is not helped by director James Warwick's decision to punctuate every scene change—and there are many—with snippets of popular music 15 years gone-by. Much as I enjoyed hearing U2's "One" and Van Halen's "Right Now," most of the songs seem to have little to do with the preceding or coming action. Indeed, as most of the scenes in Sherman's script are relatively brief, the constantly interloping music makes it difficult for the show to achieve a rhythm beyond the staccato of scene/song/scene/song.
The cast turn in fine performances (with particularly lovely work by Hogan and Carbonaro, and a charming comic turn by Ian Alda as Igor), but they are simply given too little to work with. Charlie Hewson is an engaging, charming presence, but there seems little reason for an audience to invest in his character, Ex, who (by sheer magnitude of stage time) is revealed as the play's central character and, presumably, Sherman's Everyman; if the audience is intended to see itself reflected by Ex—if Ex is meant to be our cipher and theatrical avatar—then Sophistry must not think much of its audience.
Apologists might claim that Sophistry is an examination of the melancholic, infinite sadness of mid-'90s purposelessness as viewed through the patina of the sexual politics of academia. When the play first premiered in 1993, with the specter of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings more closely in an audience's rearview mirror, perhaps the piece held greater resonance. Unfortunately, this staging seems largely interested in the purposeless minutiae of self-absorbed dormitory life—without principle or plot.