Written by A.R. Gurney
Directed by Jim Simpson
Office Hours, A.R. Gurney’s didactic but sympathetic new play at The Flea (through November 7), is a toast to great books, an iconoclastic argument for the value of Western culture—of old white men and Eurocentric education. It’s set in the 1970s, with exceptionally vivid period costumes by Jessica Pabst, when challenges to the canon became mainstream, as students crying irrelevance and faculty demanding diversity demolished the hegemony of pre-Enlightenment classics and carved out a space for Faulkner, feminism and Ralph Ellison.
It’s divided into episodes, each of which usually deals with one or more overburdened professors of a class called “The Western Tradition,” all underpaid and worried about job security, meeting with one or more students. They gab about themselves and the classics, then slip into heady academic arguments that unwittingly engage with the themes of whatever book established the pretense for their meetings: the section on Dante features not only an experienced instructor mentoring a newbie, a la Virgil and Alighieri, but a pair of lovers whose circumstances recall, loosely and comically, those of Francesca and Paolo. Each of the play’s ten or so chapters is like this: the section on Thucydides revolves around parallels between the Cold War, the culture war, and the war between Athens and Sparta.
They all function as not-too-overt evidence that the classics connect meaningfully to our everyday lives: men struggling in different ways with their homosexuality can find guidance in The Confessions of St. Augustine. As such, Gurney validates the timelessness and universality of these declared-outdated classics—he re-endows them with legitimacy. The Bible has more to teach us than the secular multiculturalists controlling academia might be willing to admit. “This is what happens with great books,” one character says. “They become part of our being.” More so, they reveal the emotional courses of our lives, the cross-cultural commonalities of feeling, so we’d be smart to read them if only to get out ahead.
Office Hours might not work the same way: it’s convincing as an intellectual exercise, maybe, but it points at the verities of human nature more often than it illustrates them. Thank goodness, then, for this production’s excellent ensemble of actors, each of whom plays multiple parts, professor and student, moving capably between the two. (It’s performed by The Flea’s repertory company, The Bats, which includes our arts editor’s steady, though not on the night I attended; the cast rotates.) They pick up Gurney’s slack, supplying comedy and personality to an intellectual argument. They give a dry text texture, much like the classics do our lives.
(photo credit: Richard Termine)