Written by Brian Dykstra
Directed by Margarett Perry
As a famous playwriting maxim goes, “start your scenes late and get out early”. Brian Dykstra gets it, and in the first act of his timely exploration of free speech and youth activism in 21st Century America, he skillfully airdrops the audience into a personal-slash-ideological conflict already in motion.
Due to what some adults see as transgressive behavior, high school senior Mick (Wesley T. Jones), has been called into the principal’s office. His provocative entry in the school art competition consists of an American flag suspended over a Bunsen burner, with a can of lighter fluid nearby. Mick hasn’t actually set fire to the flag, but his intention was clear enough. Responsible for both school safety and community standards, Principal Kirks (Bruce Faulk), grills the young man as to the thinking (or lack thereof) behind this sudden outburst creative of expression. Mick, of course, knows more than any grownup (what 17-year-old doesn’t?) and launches into a trite tirade on everything that’s wrong with The System. The principal’s responses are more cynical than authoritarian (“What, nothing on gay marriage?”), but he’s still required to mete out an appropriate punishment. Mick will be suspended for three days and banned from participating in -or even attending the upcoming Art Fair. Worse, Kirks calls him a “little bitch” and chides him for having spent so little money and effort on this project. It’s not what Mick -or the audience – is expecting. Kirks isn’t preaching conformity, he’s ridiculing Mick for his lack of commitment. If you’re going to create something incendiary, at least do it right. Art demands sacrifice, kiddo.
While Mick plots his magnum opus, his girlfriend Bekka (Jane West), struggles with her own First Amendment problems. She’s been participating in local poetry slams, and her latest ode – not without justification – is full of F bombs. Kirks decides lets it go, as long as she keeps the offending material off school grounds. But Bekka’s ordeal is hardly relieved. She still has to deal with her devoutly Christian mother, Sandy (Elizabeth Meadows Rouse), who does not approve of young ladies using foul language. Her father, a firm believer in “domestic discipline”, punishes disobedience with physical abuse. Nevertheless, Bekka’s rebellious streak remains strong, as does her ideological kinship with Mick. He will need Bella’s help in order to launch sneak his project into the Art Fair, and she bravely obliges. This time the art piece involves destroying an icon even more sacrosanct than the red-white-and-blue, and Mick and Bekka are expecting a push back. Thankfully, and Mick’s uncle Gordon (Matthew Boston), a liberal atheist who once studied law, is ready and able to duke it out with the establishment. Yet even he is unprepared the conflagration that engulfs what was once a placid community.
Unfortunately, though the issues remain compelling throughout the play, the energy cools in the later scenes as the debate becomes one-sided. Clever Gordon easily backs his opponents into corners, and Mick’s iconoclastic agenda rarely meets with a cogent counter-argument. Eventually even the caustic Kirks softens, using his own life as an object lesson in the perils of compromise. Regardless of the playwright’s individual stance, a more evenly pitched battle of ideals would make for a more dynamic evening of theater. “In a good play, everyone is right,” is another writing adage worth heeding.
Despite these drawbacks, Dykstra’s humor and humanity, expertly mined by an appealing cast under Margarett Perry’s brisk direction, distinguish EDUCATION from many less-inspired topical dramas. But it has the potential to cut deeper, to fulfill its promise of bringing the dynamics of the classic problem play to the trenches of today’s culture wars. More of a flavor of Ibsen and Shaw, and a soupçon less of John Hughes, would give it the kick it needs.
EDUCATION continues through April 8, 2018 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY 10022. Tickets: https://www.ticketcentral.com.