Just when you’ve seen enough plays about talking hamsters and sat through enough hackneyed plots and gimmicks to contemplate submitting a formal proposal to rename the Fringe Festival the “Cringe Festival” — along comes a complete breath of fresh air like Nanci Richards’ Pedagogy, a hilarious and poignant one-woman show. Taut, spare and direct, the show is nearly perfect. Richards, a stand-up comedian and storyteller by night, is a New York City school teacher by day. She recounts for us, in sometimes side-splitting detail, a year (185 days to be exact—she’s counting!) in the life of an idealistic and well-meaning educator who’s constantly smacked down by an inept and clueless administration, woefully underachieving pupils who think Betty Crocker was at the Alamo, and neurotic parents nursing their own sets of problems. Worn down and frazzled, Richards resigns herself to futility, noting that the rap stars her students hopelessly idolize will never give shout-outs to teachers. At least she gets a $10 co-pay and a week off for winter break.
Then something wholly unexpected happens: after reluctantly accepting an invitation to the Sweet 16 party of one of her students, she realizes that she has made an impact on that young girl’s life. She wisecracks that she feels like Sidney Poitier in To Sir With Love but the audience knows that, under her hardened exterior, she’s delighted and proud.
Around Day 115, her class is chosen to receive a visit from New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. Suddenly the administration cares! They polish the floors and even install an air conditioner. The ensuing unraveling of best laid plans (“Bring it on Joel Klein!”) is a comic gem. Richards is a comedian with formidable narrative and physical comedy skills. Her imitations are spot-on and her jokes never fall flat — no mean feat when you’re flying solo.
The Center for Architecture turned out to be a terrific setting for Pedagogy. Surrounded by exhibits like “Visions of Governors Island” and “SUNY Buffalo,” you feel like you’re in a classroom. A merciful sense of economy pervades the entire production. Staging and direction by Michael Tennenbaum is sparse but entirely appropriate, lighting is befitting to the content, and the pre- and post-show school-themed background music selections (e.g., The Ramones’ “Rock and Roll High School” and Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher”) make for a fun atmosphere. This is the rare classroom where you’re actually a little bit sad when the bell rings. Attend!