On stage: a collision of purposes in a campus setting

Another Antigone Play by A.R. Gurney Jr. Directed by John Tillinger. Intimations of latent anti-Semitism complicate the central conflict of ``Another Antigone,'' by A.R. Gurney Jr., at Playwrights Horizons. Mr. Gurney, whose previous comedies have included ``The Dining Room,'' ``The Middle Ages,'' and ``The Perfect Party,'' this time explores the groves of Academe in the 1980s. In particular, he deals with the threatening encounter between Henry Harper (George Grizzard), a veteran professor of classics at a Boston university, and Judy Miller (Marissa Chibas), a bright Jewish senior who balks at curricular discipline in the matter of a term paper.

Professor Harper's assignment is to write a paper about the tragic ironies of ``Antigone,'' the Sophoclean version of a classic Greek legend. (Forbidden by King Creon to bury her dead brother, Antigone defied the tyrant, was imprisoned underground, and killed herself.) Instead of the required essay, Judy decides to write a modern version of the tragedy with an antinuclear theme. Faced with yet another undergraduate effort to make Sophocles ``relevant,'' Harper rejects the project. Undeterred, Judy continues working on her play and begins rehearsing it.

Harper's abstract philosophic theories contrasting Greek and Hebraic value systems, plus certain insensitive racial remarks, threaten to turn a straightforward problem of academic discipline into something more damaging and serious. Judy needs a passing grade in Harper's course in order to graduate and to take the yuppie job awaiting her in the world of finance. Harper, whose courses are seriously under-enrolled, needs students to continue teaching.

Gurney weaves this complex of interrelated themes into a comedy that touches base on a wide range of current intellectual and social issues. As the central figure in the controversy, Mr. Grizzard gives a vigorously eloquent portrait of a passionately committed teacher. His neatly bearded Harper relishes the academic jokes, the formal discourse, and the pedantic jocularity of a seasoned guide and mentor of the young.

The events of ``Another Antigone'' lead to a reconciliation in which Harper plays a magnanimous role and to a surprise decision on Judy's part. While far removed from Greek tragedy, the play's final outcome is not a happy ending in the conventional sense. Harper, whose marital as well as academic life has been falling apart, finds himself in an end-of-the-line situation he cannot control, thereby fulfilling his own definition of classic tragedy. Some of the twists and turns of ``Another Antigone'' seem overly calculated.

Gurney nevertheless entertains his audience with a pertinent theatrical prospectus and a view of higher learning's processes drawn from his personal experience as a teacher of literature at MIT for 25 years.

The campus scene is enlivened by the presence of Debra Mooney as the understanding dean of humane studies, whose duties include confronting Harper with official complaints. Miss Chibas does her best to prove that Judy is more than just a ``spoiled brat'' of affluence and indulgent parenting.

Steven Flynn gives an appealing performance as Judy's loyal boyfriend, who discovers an affinity for the classics and an unexpected friend in Professor Harper.

Director John Tillinger preserves the sense of momentum required for the forward movement of the multiple scenes making up the intermissionless play. With a symbolic background column to suggest its milieu, set and costume designer Steven Rubin's setting (lighted by Kent Dorsey) suggests locales ranging from faculty offices to lecture hall. ``Another Antigone'' (through Feb. 7) comes to New York after its 1987 premi`ere at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre.

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