Most people never remember what they scored on their SATs in high school. Yet when their children take the test, they suddenly remember all too well. Perhaps that is why some parents dress their children in Princeton sweatshirts from the time they are 5, whereas others pay tutors up to $200 an hour to prepare them for the impending exam. In Maryrose Wood's delightfully unique musical The Tutor, playing at 59E59 Theatres, two desperate Manhattan parents named Richard (Richard Pruitt) and Esther (Gayton Scott) hire a young alumnus from Princeton named Edmund (Eric Ankrim) to tutor their daughter for the SATs. They tentatively introduce him to their punked-out, heavily made-up teenager, Sweetie (Meredith Bull), hoping he will see the Ivy League potential in her.
Edmund sees something in Sweetie, but it is not potential. As a starving artist working on the Great American Novel, he sees young Sweetie as the perfect "cash cow" to subsidize his income while he writes, never imagining that one day this young girl could wind up teaching him.
With an onstage orchestra supplying the live music and a variety of complex scene changes sustaining the plot's fast pace, the cast and crew have no room for error as they scurry about in the darkness between scenes. The spotlights are perfectly timed, the orchestra is always exactly on cue, and everyone manages to get where he or she needs to be on this jungle gym of a stage. Often an actor will balance on a high platform while another rolls him into place. On many occasions, Ankrim dashes across the stage to quickly hoist himself atop the orchestra box, where the ceiling serves as his studio apartment's floor. It is impressive to watch how much is flawlessly accomplished in the few seconds the actors have to create their next setting.
When Edmund first appears to evaluate Sweetie's potential, he is obnoxiously well mannered and condescending to his student. Then one day in the library she asks to read some of his novel. Reluctantly, he shows her, but regrets it when she criticizes the mechanical way he writes. She offers suggestions, and Edmund is surprised to find that they help his writing. From there she becomes his trusted reader, giving comments, criticism, and general feedback at each of their sessions.
Eventually the two become close and discover that the best parts of themselves come out when they are together. Edmund's enthusiasm for writing fuels her desire to learn, and her unjaded vision of the world helps him to see his characters from a new perspective. Their bond strengthens to the point where Edmund cannot imagine writing without Sweetie, and Sweetie cannot imagine liking any other boy but Edmund. Unfortunately, he is oblivious to her feelings, and her girlhood crush leads to the play's main conflict, which has nothing to do with tests and everything to do with people.
The Tutor plays with the notion that sometimes in life we are never sure who is tutoring whom. During the course of the story, a student learns from her teacher, parents learn from their child, and a teacher learns from his student. By the end, they all learn to lighten up, listen to each other, and not take life so seriously.
It is a relief to see a play that is not afraid to try something new and has a good time doing it. The actors have an infectious energy that makes you want to follow their story wherever it may lead. There are catchy original songs by the team of Maryrose Wood and Andrew Gerle, the most memorable being "Stupid Rich Kids," "Don't Eat Your Friends," "Me Artist, You Rich," and Esther's somber ballad "That's How a Life Is Made," sung beautifully by Gayton Scott.
This production is fun enough for all ages to thoroughly enjoy, but its subject will be especially significant to high school students. When the SATs descend upon them in their senior year, it would be nice if they could see a play poking fun at all the surrounding hysteria. As The Tutor astutely reminds us, it is only a test.