Walnut Street Theatre play's takedown of academia doesn’t make the grade.
To build and maintain a theater community, it’s essential to nurture local playwrights. However, audiences as a rule flock to what they know; producing lesser-known works by unfamiliar names can be a financial risk. So, while many contentedly keep drawing from the smallish pool of musicals and big-name plays that always attract an audience, Philadelphia Theatre Workshop deserves a huge commendation for devoting its entire 2009-10 season to the works of Philadelphia-area playwrights. They hit the bulls-eye last fall with the critically acclaimed production of existential comedy The :NV:S:BLE Play by Chestnut Hill’s Alex Dremann; it’s unfortunate that the season’s conclusion, the world premiere of Pew Fellow Katharine Clark Gray’s revenge romance 516 (five sixteen) , is such a disappointment.
Set at an unnamed university somewhere in the northeast U.S., Annalee (Emilie Krause) is a ghostwriter of sorts, making a living writing papers for students who then submit her work as their own. It’s not the most ethical occupation, but, like all three characters in 516 , Annalee isn’t particularly concerned with ethics. She is, however, an expert at her craft; she likes to think of herself as a modern-day Cyrano, with lunkheaded undergrads as lunkheaded Christian, but with that elusive A filling in for the beautiful Roxane.
Annalee’s talents attract opportunistic film student Sigurd (Kevin Meehan), who, unlike most of Annalee’s clients, is neither lazy nor stupid. He has a 4.0 GPA, but also has what he calls “time-management” issues. He tells Annalee that he needs every waking moment to work on his thesis and thus has no time for his media-studies assignments, and offers to double her usual pay if she’ll work for him exclusively. Annalee hesitantly agrees and, although she doesn’t typically combine business with pleasure, she is soon sharing Sigurd’s bed as well as writing his papers.
Annale insists on discussing Sigurd’s assignments, and much of the play’s first act is spent with the pair arguing about film trivia and the state of television. Film junkies and/or 18-year-olds itching to leave for Oberlin in the fall may be fascinated by heated debates about David Cronenberg, but for the rest of us it’s dull and does little to serve the plot.
Speaking of Cronenberg, whose films the couple’s sex life seems to be influenced by, Annalee and Sigurd’s trysts are surprisingly graphic. This is particularly the case in a scene in which Sigurd introduces the idea of using a dog’s fibula as a sex toy.
Stephen Hungerford’s multilevel set is efficient, but dull. Vandy Scoates’ everyday costumes, though, are more effectively ordinary, particularly in the case of Sigurd, who boasts a fetching nipple ring, and Annalee, whose well-worn attire suggests a young woman barely making ends meet. 516 would work better with a more satirical, humorous edge, but Bill Felty’s earnest direction suggests that the production is taking itself and its twisty morality very seriously, almost to the point of squinting intensely while saying, “We’re dark , man.”
Neither Annalee nor Sigurd is particularly likeable or trustworthy, each being more concerned with his or her own ambitions than with maintaining a healthy relationship. Similarly unpleasant is the third character in the small cast, Sigurd’s autocratic media-studies teacher Professor Hodge (Ann Gundersheimer, struggling to find variety of emotion in the one-dimensional character), who is especially shown as such after the mystery thesis and the couple’s sordid professional and personal relationships are revealed.
Gundersheimer is saddled with a flat character, either appalled when she discovers she’s been duped or nastily superior as she lashes out at the remorseless pair in a completely ludicrous act of retribution. But whether it’s the script’s fault or not, she’s still the weakest of the three actors. Krause and Meehan give competent performances, but despite the script’s overt sexuality, there’s little spark between their supposedly lust-stricken characters.
After an abundance of twists and turns in the complicated plot, at the end it’s still unclear what Gray is trying to say, or if she’s trying to say anything at all. If 516 is an indictment of the current higher-education system, Gray doesn’t offer any alternatives. The play clearly would like to be a bitingly critical look at academia, though the anonymous university doesn’t seem particularly relevant to the average grad-student experience. And, strangely, after two grueling hours of the darker side of human nature (the script is in dire need of a hard edit), the conclusion is incongruously sweet, sentimental and, like so much in 516, ultimately unconvincing.
516 (five sixteen)
Through June 6
Walnut Street Theatre Studio 5
825 Walnut St.
Calendar: Sept. 2-9