The paper chase


By Justin Deabler
Directed by Ari Laura Kreith
Lynx Ensemble Theater
American Theatre for Actors
Equity showcase (closed)
Review by John Chatterton

Contracts is an insider's view of Harvard Law School, an elitist institution described by the professor of the introductory course in Contracts (Michael Lopez) as "not a safe place." There are five scenes in the classroom, and the subject matter is never far from the surface at other times, so even the most inattentive spectator will absorb the essential parts of a contract.

To playwright Deabler's credit, the dramatic web among the students is as interesting as the classroom subject matter. There are Jason (David Lavine), who is gay, and whose mother, Vivian (Betsy Johnson), knits her way through a fragmenting marriage; Daniel (Mark O'Connell), confined to a wheelchair, a talented painter, whose mother, Joanne (Joy Besozzi), is a dean and an expert on Dickens and who is trying to get Vivian to come to an extension course on clitoral awareness; and Sarah and Katherine (Aileen Barry and Joy Marr), who are lovers, though Katherine doesn't want to come out.

The play leads to inevitable Big Confrontations -- between Daniel and his controlling mother, who is amusingly eccentric until he tells her he wants to quit law school to become a painter, and between Katherine and Sarah, when Katherine loses her family's financial support by slacking off in class, but Sarah becomes an academic star. Also between Jason and his mother, when he tells her off for not standing up for herself, then helps her get a successful divorce. (Not to mention the scene in which it is revealed that Daniel is handicapped because his father dropped him as a baby....) There is a happy ending, triggered by a seamless transition to a flashback, in which Sarah and Katherine agree to live together on the money from Katherine's summer job.

The acting was intense, sometimes overly so. It was fair for Lopez, as Prof. Kappeter, to raise his voice all the time -- he did have to be heard at the back of the lecture hall. But some of the other actors -- notably Marr -- got in the habit as well, so much of the play was shouted. And that was too bad, as the actors were obviously totally committed to their parts and generally made the most of the material. The theatre wasn't so big that normal methods of voice production wouldn't have sufficed to project to the back row.

Giving credit where it was due, the actors picked up their cues ferociously, so the pacing was, to say the least, brisk. Since Deabler deliberately toys with contrapuntal dialog, having several conversations going on in parallel at the same time, the impression was very naturalistic, while nevertheless cleverly contrived. Deabler also has a way with quips that kept the pot of humor bubbling merrily when the other emotions might have threatened to make it congeal. Still, all that yelling made it difficult to get deeply drawn into the characters' pain, so much of the drama remained on the surface. Whether that judgment would stand in a more subdued production is an open question.

The set (Brandon K. Matthews) was mostly a living room in a very low-rent apartment, alternating with a few chairs and a podium for the classroom; also a rooftop, and some stylized bits of wall to suggest Harvard Square. The living room went behind a traveling curtain when not in use, so scene changes took less than 30 seconds, which is fairly efficient for a show with no stagehands. Costumes were carefully chosen personal items that reflected the characters' personalities.

In that the implied contract between audience and theatre company is that, for the consideration of buying a ticket, the audience is moved to laughter and pathos, this production fulfilled its obligations. No lawsuit to follow.

(Lighting design: Darren Ley.)

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 1
Acting: 1
Set: 1
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2004 John Chatterton