Update of Sophocles opens at Old Globe

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A.R. Gurney Jr. is an academic-turned-playwright who has given us three plays ``in disgustingly quick succession,'' as he puts it. Shaking off the dust of 25 years in the classroom, he has been trying, in his own words, to ``push the walls of dramatic form.'' In ``The Perfect Party'' - which had an extended Off Broadway run at Playwrights Horizons and at Washington's Kennedy Center - that meant characters who were impossibly articulate and a plot that pushed the boundaries ofboth plausibility and (intentionally) good taste.

In ``Sweet Sue'' a contemporary love story involving an older woman and a younger man - pushing dramatic form meant using two actors to play each role simultaneously. After a workshop production at the Williamstown Theater Festival last July, the play moved on to Broadway with Mary Tyler Moore and Lynn Redgrave.

Now with the world premi`ere of ``Another Antigone'' here at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, Gurney attempts to explode Aristotle's notions of unity of action and time by using stage space as both office and campus, classroom and courtyard.

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Under the direction of John Tillinger, who has worked with Gurney in the past, the result is an engaging, fast-moving production on view at the Cassius Carter Centre Stage through May 3.

``Another Antigone'' is a modern example of the theme Sophocles explored in his ``Antigone'': the clash between youthful idealism and intransigent authority.

Every year in the college classics course of Prof. Henry Harper, another passionate student submits a contemporary version of the Greek writer's most famous work. This year, student Judy Miller's version pits Jane Fonda against Ronald Reagan in a nuclear protest replete with incidental mood music for Moog synthesizer.

Professor Harper, a brilliant classical scholar who is inflexibly devoted to intellectual pursuits, refuses to accept the paper. Not until Miss Miller understands the true meaning of tragedy - the point of his class - will he give her a passing grade.

``Do you know what tragedy means?'' he asks. ``It means that the world is ultimately unfair.''

The headstrong Miss Miller is initially passionate about her need to get a good grade in order to graduate and move on to a high-powered career in the ``practical'' world of international finance. In her insistence that the play be performed, however, she is gradually transformed into an idealist who acts for the sake of principle alone.

The Sophoclean tragedy was set in Thebes, where citizen Antigone defied ruler Creon. In their modern incarnations, Miller and Harper clash on a university battlefield where practicality vs. dogmatism and personal conscience vs. public honor. As if that weren't enough, the the theme of anti-Semitism also raises its head.

If that sounds like a lot to tackle in a 100-minute drama with four characters, it is.

But Mr. Gurney's play, as performed by George Grizzard (Harper), Marissa Chiba (Miller), Debra Mooney (dean of humanities), and Steven Flynn (student), is remarkably accessible.

Though essentially tragic, the play is frequently comedic in tone - and so engagingly written as to race toward denouement without need of intermission.

The dialogue serves as a conduit for sizzling language and witty interchange. There is much that is deep and wise here in a thorough mining of themes Gurney should know well. A 25-year veteran of the classroom (at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he taught drama), he knows not only ancient and modern theater and modern academia, but how to balance both with moving theatricality that is both poignant and relevant.

If the play has a tragic flaw, it is that Gurney sometimes attempts to give it so much scope that its focus gets lost.

Also of note at the Old Globe (though May 3) is the American premi`ere of Alan Ayckbourn's ``Intimate Exchanges.''

A lover of puzzles, the playwright has fashioned what he calls a dramatic ``maze'' for the two actors, written in two volumes and eight complete scripts. Characters vary according to which plot line is being followed. Two of the scripts are being given here.

Ayckbourn has said, ``I don't know whether the English never say what they mean because their language is like it is, or the language is like it is because they don't like saying what they mean.''

Much of ``Intimate Exchanges'' consists of the playwright's wonderful and witty turns of phrase and explores the kind of half-truths, miscues, and misfiring intentions that often plague male/female courtships and extramarital intrigues.

As usual with Ayckbourn, the plot isn't earthshaking. Two actors playing four characters - two educated and two from the working class - cozy up to one another in a banal, suburban context. A gardener dates the maid of a disfranchised British schoolmaster who drinks too much and his wife, who is thinking of leaving him at the end of the term.

What's engaging is the inherent interest of the characters themselves - their foibles and fears and their attempts to overcome them.

The play is dependent on the subtleties of British comic pacing, phrasing, and interaction between the classes, and this American production lacks some of the punch the original may have had.

Though the performances of Kandis Chappell (Celia Teasdale and Sylvie Bell) and William Anton (Toby, Celia's husband and gardener Lionel Hepplewick) offer the uncanny shifts in character and accent one would expect, one senses they are dilutions of the original. As a result, the play isn't as funny as it should be.

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