Alex McDonald teaches in the New York City public schools, so he was understandably fed up with Hollywood's idealized depiction of the teaching profession. He wanted to tell a more realistic story than the standard movie plot wherein a teacher inherits a class full of delinquents and turns them into upstanding honor students.
Surely, though, McDonald's Prism cannot be the definitive word on teaching in the public schools. Far from Hollywood's miracle workers, the teachers in Prism don't even want to connect with the students emotionally or intellectually. Their only goal is survival. The way to do that, a veteran teacher advises his younger colleague, is to pretend the students are invisible.
Is this what tax money is paying for? Teachers who want to pretend the students don't exist? The teachers in Prism are too strident and inept to be believed. Jameson, the frenetic new teacher, swears at students and constantly tells them to shut up (including the nerd who has been locked in a cabinet by bullies). The calm veteran Smith, on the other hand, keeps his hands in his pockets and gives curt orders. When for the first time in 21 years he goes against his philosophy and ``sees'' a student--a girl who always carries a photo of her dead brother with her--catastrophe ensues in the classroom.
Is McDonald saying, then, that teachers should remain dispassionate and strict at all times? It's difficult to understand what point he was trying to make with this play. There is middle ground between the unrealistic scenarios presented in the movies and the unrelenting hellhole portrayed here.
Unless McDonald meant it all as satire. That would explain some over-the-top moments, like when the two men break into song about an attractive art teacher or when Jameson stomps his feet and throws chairs around during class. Taken seriously, however, Prism is mean-spirited and incoherent. McDonald's best stabs at humor target the school system bureaucracy. The teachers are inundated with forms with long alphanumeric titles; the school is visited by the all-important ``liaison to the chancellor's liaison,'' and when calling the board of education Jameson is put on hold repeatedly before he can even say hello.
Although Prism takes place in a school, there are no students in the play. The only characters are the two teachers, so Jesse Wilson and Rome Neal alone had to enliven a rambling and undramatic work. (The acting would have been more impressive if Neal, an award-winning actor, remembered his lines.) (Set, Richard Cerullo; Lighting, Easton O. Nelson Jr.; Sound, David Roche.)
Copyright 1996 Adrienne Onofri
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