The Keen Company’s revival of The Film Society, the 1988 play that established the talent of Jon Robin Baitz, shows a playwright in his mid-20s already possessed of uncommon insight, yet decades away from Other Desert Cities. Though it draws on Baitz’s early days living in South Africa, it is an astonishingly mature play, as André Bishop notes in the preface to the 1993 paperback edition from Theatre Communications Group.
In short, punchy scenes set in 1970 in Durban, South Africa, Baitz shows the way institutionalized racism survives and invidiously co-opts people with nobler impulses. Jonathon Balton (Euan Morton) is a teacher at Blenheim, a private boys’ prep school where he has instituted a “film society.” It’s nothing much: he shows films such as Touch of Evil and Top Hat in a feeble attempt to impart culture to the students. The films are as much for his soul as for refining their feelings, which he knows are influenced by their white parents' apartheid views.
Although Jonathon chafes at the school’s rigid strictures and kowtowing to those parents, it is his two best friends and fellow teachers, Terry Sinclair (David Barlow) and his wife, Nan (Mandy Siegfried), who seriously rock the boat. Terry has repeatedly organized events in which the boys can meet or be spoken to by a black activist. As the play opens, the parents are in an uproar that a black minister was the surprise speaker at the school’s Centenary Day.
Though the incident precipitates a crisis for Terry and, indirectly, Nan, Jonathon tries his best to protect both of them. He and Terry have been friends since childhood, and he tolerates Terry’s reckless activism because of it. Nonetheless, Jonathon is under pressure to conform from the pompous but well-intentioned headmaster, Neville Sutter (a composed and weary Gerry Bamman), who is himself feeling the heat from Jonathon’s meddlesome mother (Roberta Maxwell), a grande dame given to wearing caftans and turbans. Maxwell finds a nice balance of iron authority and honeyed wheedling; her late husband was headmaster at Blenheim, and she has the money to parlay Jonathon into the same position.
The young Baitz is particularly accomplished at crisscrossing all the strands of the drama: the brutal racism of South Africa, embodied by Richmond Hoxie’s apoplectic teacher, Hamish Fox, who invokes the Mau-Mau uprising and General Idi Amin as reasons for the rightness of white supremacy; Jonathon’s desperate, failing attempts to win concessions for his friends and, later, after gaining power, to fully protect them; and the way he is maneuvered into the job by the powers-that-be. (His absorption into the establishment is given a nice visual effect from the gradual improvement of his appearance in suits designed by Jennifer Paar.)
Nor does The Film Society ever become too obvious a symbol; you have to listen closely as the drama progresses to follow its fortunes. The whole play, though, requires close attention, as Jonathon is manipulated incrementally; director Jonathan Silverstein has done a fine job of keeping one guessing what’s going to happen next. (One quibble, though; it’s unlikely that anyone with cultivation, when asked for a drink, would simply hand over the one he’d been sipping and then fix a fresh one for himself, as Jonathon does when Nan asks.)
Steven C. Kemp’s set is visually striking and underscores the political situation. It features three functional playing areas — the school office, Terry and Nan’s home, and Mrs. Balton’s parlor — but surmounting them is a huge painting on the rear wall, a representation of the St. George’s and St. Andrew’s crosses melded in white, representing the British Empire, which had ruled South Africa. But the white of the crosses, though dominating, is eroding, and in places underneath one sees the kente patterns of black African tribes — a neat visual complement to the political situation.
Morton is a multilayered Jonathon. The text at various points suggests Jonathon is a closeted homosexual, and Morton finds body language to enhance that notion, but he’s never a pushover. He may not pick his battles wisely, but he’s easygoing and composed in taking on issues he cares about. As he slowly assumes more authority, one sees his transformation to a bureaucrat who, like Neville, has no life but the school’s. Barlow creates a Terry who is as irritating as he must be, but still sympathetic; he is, after all, on the side of the angels, and Siegfried's Nan is a loyal though often exasperated partner for him.
That the play has stood up after more than two decades is a measure of Baitz's talent. If one wants to see the first steps toward the playwright's masterly Other Desert Cities, this is the place to start.