'Death of the Author': Theater Review

Death of the Author Theater Still - P 2014

Death of the Author Theater Still - P 2014

Satiric academic comedy generates enough moral complexity to transmute into a tense suspense piece of intention and accountability. 

Orson Bean plays a department chair in this academic comedy skewering postmodernism at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.

Having narrowly escaped academe with only soaked knees before the tsunami of structuralism hit with full force, this critic has been fortunate enough to contemplate its roiling waters at a safe distance over its decades of circular dominance without needing to swim perilously against its tide. While the application of such theories can generate some genuine insights and no-longer-new perspectives, “postmodern” has long forfeited its revolutionary innovation to become the standard collegiate orthodoxy, aging into cant and cliche. (Let us forbear entirely from taking up the now equally old-hat “post-postmodernism”.)

Have the timorous among you already stopped reading? Fear not the gnarly material, because playwright Steven Drukman makes particularly entertaining and lucid humor and drama out of such apparently abstruse study in this compelling world premiere play, which is no more difficult than such popular successes as Proof that flirt playfully with depictions of scholarly life.

Death of the Author may have appropriated its title from the seminal 1967 essay by Roland Barthes, which argued that criticism should liberate us from the prejudices of perceiving the intentions of the creator, apprehending the meaning of any work entirely on its own terms, which are necessarily understood as mutable and fluid over time. But Drukman -- also a journalist, critic and professor -- insists on undertaking to be a conscientious craftsman of a well-made play, his interest in theory primarily to deploy it as a subversive metaphor for human relationships, particularly those class assumptions that we use to rationalize our bad behavior toward one another and to justify to ourselves our blamelessness for the consequences of our actions.

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Reminiscent of David Mamet’s Oleanna scored for four characters instead of two, and consequently with more opportunities for harmonic variations, Death of the Author opens with Jeff (David Clayton Rogers of Jane By Design and Border Patrol), an upwardly mobile, underpaid young adjunct at a prestige university, calling on the carpet a privileged pre-law math major, Bradley (Austin Butler, The Carrie Diaries), to adjudicate his term paper on postmodernism as plagiarism, which will scotch both his graduation and his new job. Drukman makes it easy for the two of them, and the audience, to perceive each other as representative of a despised type: the teacher hiding behind mandated procedural process, and the entitled student presuming he can bend the system to his prerogative.

Yet quickly, as the personalities and agendas clash, many finely wrought complications reveal themselves. This leads to the involvement of the retiring department chair, J. Trumbull Sykes (Orson Bean, at 85 relishing the swaggering role of a lifetime), Jeff’s indulgent mentor, and Bradley’s ex-girlfriend Sarah (Lyndon Smith of Parenthood), academically and temperamentally contrasting to his deceptively clueless mix of insecurity and arrogance.

The twist is that Bradley, admittedly a credulously literal left-brainer, believed himself to be fulfilling the assignment by deconstructing the coursework into an actual postmodern composition entirely comprised of purloining numerous literary and critical excerpts without individual attribution. In a sense, he has internalized the principles expressed without regard to the pedagogic conventions that are arguably extrinsic to the essential point of postmodernism.

So academic politics, class resentments, idealistic careerism, personal trauma and generational communication gaps all teeter on fundamental misunderstandings among people, as everyone conducts themselves unconscionably for what they believe to be good reasons, which barely matter a jot. In short, the pretense that intention and personality are irrelevant takes a terrible beating, as every individual demonstrates in their own way that consequences are never inconsequential merely because no harm was intended.

Drukman ultimately simplifies these intricately drawn intimate conflicts for the sake of a congenially salvational resolution, yet he respects the intellectual integrity of his ironies and paradoxes and so accords respect both for the audience and the complexities of his characters’ strengths and limitations. It is by turns clever, agile and, as the climax nears, rife with the anxiety of the suspense attendant to recognizable life troubles. 

Besides the sheer delight of Bean’s show-stealing drollery and twinkly wit, Butler deserves special mention for endowing his ostensibly banal stereotype with a stubborn determination and affectless vulnerability that extract the maximum possible impact from the deceptively good writing he is given. 

Venue: Geffen Playhouse, Westwood (runs through June 29)

Cast: David Clayton Rogers, Austin Butler, Orson Bean, Lyndon Smith

Director: Bart DeLorenzo

Playwright: Steven Drukman

Set designer: Takeshi Kata

Lighting designer: Lap Chi Chu

Costume designer: Christina Haatainen-Jones

Music and sound designer: John Ballinger