`Sophistry' Takes Cynical View of Relationships

SOPHISTRY Drama by Jonathan Marc Sherman. At Playwrights Horizons through Nov. 7.

OF all the budding dramatists whose work has been showcased over the years by the Young Playwrights Festival, probably the biggest find has been Jonathan Marc Sherman.

His ``Women and Wallace'' is easily the best play the festival has ever presented (he also adapted it for PBS's ``American Playhouse''), and now with the Off-Broadway production of his new play ``Sophistry,'' there is further proof that this writer holds promise.

To be sure, ``Sophistry'' is a hodgepodge of a play that fails to coalesce into a unified whole, but it also has superb patches of writing, provocative characterizations and situations, and some real wit.

The work chronicles the sexual misadventures of a group of students at a small New England college.

In the beginning, the focus seems to be a sexual-harrassment charge that a male student has levied against his gay, male professor (played by Austin Pendleton). The professor denies the charge, and we see the episode from his point of view. Later, the student tells his side of the story, and we see an entirely different version.

We never learn the truth, but it seems not to matter, as the playwright merely uses this as one of a series of examples of misunderstandings.

The play is loosely centered around the relationship between Xavier (Ethan Hawke), a privileged preppie, and Robin (Calista Flockhart), a budding journalist. Xavier routinely cheats on Robin, and, in one harrowing episode, he nearly rapes her best friend, who has been flirting with him.

That episode, and much of the play, provokes thought as it reveals a biting cynicism about male-female relationships.

The playwright himself shows up in the role of one of Xavier's buddies who is even less successful with women, and, like many previous playwrights who have moonlighted as actors, he gives himself the best lines.

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