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Theater Review

No Sex, Please, They're British Teachers in 'Under the Blue Sky'

Playwright David Eldridge defuses the sexual tension among faculty couples in his playlets at the Geffen.

September 20, 2002|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A popular student pastime, at just about any school, is indulging in speculation and fantasies about the love lives of the faculty.

English playwright David Eldridge turned to the after-hours activities of high school teachers for his trio of loosely related one-acts, "Under the Blue Sky," now at the Geffen Playhouse. But don't expect torrid fireworks.

Most of the men and women in Eldridge's plays are prone to platonic relationships with each other. When the subject of sex arises, so does the discomfort level. Eldridge almost could have used the title of a much older play--"No Sex, Please, We're British."

The presence of all that sexual tension sounds potentially exciting for the audience. Certainly the production, under the skilled hand of director Gilbert Cates, has its well-executed little moments. But the sense of excitement is never quite consummated. The tidy structure of "Under the Blue Sky" defuses much of the tension.

The production is divided into three playlets, set at 16-month intervals from February 1996 through August 1998. Each scene has only two characters--one male and one female teacher. All are unmarried heterosexuals, but only one of the six could be called sexually active.

The characters in the first and second scenes are mentioned, from a distance, in the later scenes. We hear a report of subsequent chapters in their lives. But in each case we've now turned our primary attention to the two characters who are currently on stage. The production never overcomes the feeling that it's providing superficial glances at its characters, not penetrating examinations.

The first scene is set in an apartment kitchen as Nick (McCaleb Burnett) prepares dinner for his colleague Helen (Margaret Welsh). They're in their 20s.

Nick has invited Helen over not to suggest a serious relationship, which is Helen's hope, but rather to tell her he's thinking of taking a job at another school that would separate them. We soon learn that they slept together once, three years ago. The evening is full of fumbles from both characters, but Nick is painted as the more insensitive.

This scene doesn't stand on its own as well as the others. The writing isn't as well hewn, and the preceding and subsequent chapters of the Nick and Helen story sound equally or more interesting. The noise of a distant bombing in the streets is a heavy-handed symbol. Burnett, with an appropriately trendy haircut, and Welsh are skilled enough, but they're limited by the script.

Opening with a fevered but unsuccessful attempt at sex, in an actual bedroom, the second scene features much less guarded characters, both in their 30s. We get a more decisive feeling that we are indeed watching the turning point in their relationship.

Not that it's much of a relationship--the promiscuous Michelle (Sharon Lawrence) is simply toying with the nerdy and needy Graham (Willie Garson) for her own vindictive purposes. But the actors run with their strong and somewhat obvious strokes--Lawrence as a callous slut and Garson as a virginal misfit--in a way that perks up the evening considerably.

Likewise, the sense of decisiveness in the third scene, set on a patio on a lazy August morning, is a plus. Anne (Judy Geeson) is 16 years older than the 40ish Robert (John Carroll Lynch), but they've been vacationing together, in separate beds, for years. This morning becomes a do-or-die opportunity to advance that relationship into something else. These two are the only likable characters in the lot, and Geeson and Lynch endow them with the requisite charm.

Why Eldridge has focused on teachers isn't quite clear. Although he isn't explicit about it, perhaps he's hinting that a level of superficiality and impermanence is an occupational hazard for teachers. They become involved with a new crop of students each year--but then the students move on. "Sometimes I feel like I'm watching from the sidelines," says a character.

This play looks at teachers in the same way they look at students. Hearing what happened to the characters in the earlier plays is like hearing what happened to the students after they graduated.

These later reports aren't very happy in the cases of the characters from the first two scenes. However, the third scene ends on a much more positive note, which is the source of the cheery connotations of the title, "Under the Blue Sky." This happy ending is momentarily gratifying, but the fact is that the last two characters are almost as coy on the subject of sex as those in the first scene were.

If Eldridge had been writing in America during the '70s, he might have been tempted by the producers of "Love, American Style." His writing is certainly better than that comment might indicate. But it's so small-scaled that it would be easy to adapt for television, even with the realistic sets, designed in fine detail by Tom Buderwitz.

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