Better Strangers by Lucia Del Vecchio
Through October 7, 2017, at Magnetic 375, 375 Depot Street, River Arts District
|Andrew Gall and Emily Tynan McDaniel in Better Strangers|
John Lambert is about to leave his office at the end of a long day at the end of an even longer spring semester when Joanna Tilley, a student from twenty years ago, appears at his door.
She is hesitant, ingratiating. She offers a bottle of expensive whiskey. A business gift to her husband, she says. Lambert, she recalls, always ended his Friday class announcing he was retiring to weekend festivities centered on a good glass of whiskey.
Lambert barely remembers her out of the 3,750 students he’s had over the past twenty-five years. (He figured up the number the other night.) But he sees himself as a caring teacher, so he indulges her in small talk. And he indulges himself generously in the whiskey.
It’s not clear to Lambert, or to us, why Joanna has come to see him. Soon, however, menace emerges. “I really do have to go,” he tells her. “No, I don’t think you do,” she replies. “You want to go, and your wife texting you is a convenient excuse, but it’s two days until graduation, your grading is done, your kid is grown and in college, and I’m making you uncomfortable.”
Out of the cupboard
And that’s when all those unseen characters start to tumble out of the cupboard: the wife, the son; another former student, a woman who has become a highly successful novelist; the new female chair of the English department, also a successful writer, who is changing everything Lambert put in place; a recently deceased male professor notorious for his affairs with students; a long-ago male professor who also preyed on his female students.
For the next two hours, we watch in real time as Joanna and Lambert battle over how these people from their past impinge on their present. Joanna, we gradually learn, blames Lambert for a transgression when she was a student.
The battle starts with feints. Joanna is coy about exactly what happened. Lambert is baffled and then annoyed that she won’t tell him what he did. As the truth—or each combatant’s version of the truth— comes out, the thrusts and parries become more deadly until a shattering confrontation in the second act.
He said, she said
Del Vecchio keeps the “he said, she said” tension tight, and her director, Callan White, choreographs the action of this duel smartly. An accomplished actor herself, White has clearly guided her actors to find both the whirlwind and the temperance in their passion.
Playwright and director are well served by Nathan Singer’s simple, monochrome set. A few well chosen pieces of furniture in shades of brown convincingly arranged in a black surround are all this field of honor needs. The uncredited costumer matches Singer’s pallette for one of the most visually harmonious production’s I’ve seen at this theatre.
Andrew Gall as Lambert really gets this schlumpy professor who pontificates too much and airs his academic grievances too easily. Emily Tynan McDaniel as Joanna radiates so much sweetness that her character’s passive aggressiveness may be less off-putting to us than it is to Lambert.
Del Vecchio takes her time in letting the secrets spill out. We might wonder why Lambert hasn’t called campus security to relieve him of this ominous former student. Or we might wonder why the playwright didn’t wind the tension even tighter by keeping her play to an intermissionless 75-minute sudden-death playoff.
Del Vecchio bravely risks comparisons with David Mamet’s Oleanna and Simon Gray’s Butley as portraits of fraught faculty-student encounters. Her ear is well-pitched for the sourness that can infect an academic whose small-town career hasn’t lived up to his ambitions. Whether Joanna’s sense of female victimhood is justified will depend on which side of the male-female divide you stand. My female companion and I had an intense discussion about who did what to whom after the performance. And that may be just what Del Vecchio intended.
Arnold Wengrow is the author of The Designs of Santo Loquasto, a chronicle of the set and costume designer's work on Broadway, Off Broadway, for dance, opera, and the movies, including thirty films by Woody Allen.
Info at www.themagnetictheatre.org/
Photograph by Rodney Smith