Uncertainty reigns in Jonathan Marc Sherman’s strangely unsatisfying 1993 play about college students confronting the gray-shaded real world from their ivory towers. Their initiation is the case of a favorite professor who is accused of sexual harassment. Could it be that the popular Whitey McCoy (Jonathan Hogan) forced troubled student Jack Kahn (Michael Carbonaro) into sexual acts, as Jack has accused him? Or is McCoy telling the truth when he says that a very drunk, sexually conflicted Jack came to his quarters late one night and made a pass at him that Whitey rebuffed? Then, says Whitey, Jack asked to stay the night and was gone in the morning. As in Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon, differing versions of the event are shown, and both look plausible.
Sherman’s title refers to the Greek school of philosophy in which one views both sides of a debate in order to become more persuasive and win one’s opponent to one’s side. The scandal of Jack and Whitey is only a prelude to a second act in which the focus turns to Whitey’s staunchest defender, caught in a similar situation. Though the nuance is interesting, the interweaving of the two stories doesn’t really work.
The manipulative, womanizing Xavier Reynolds (Charlie Hewson), nicknamed Ex, grapples not only with raging testosterone but also with confusion about sexual behavior. Ex, dumped by his girlfriend Robin (Natalie Knepp) for cheating, puts the moves on Robin’s friend Debbie (Mahira Kakkar), who confessed a fantasy to him: that she be taken sexually against her will—by him. But as soon as Ex starts to paw her, she resists him, and he stops. In the opinion of Ex’s bandmate Willy, though, she had issued Ex an invitation. Which of the men is right? Would Ex have been accused of rape? Or would he have been a victim of mixed signals?
For Debbie, there’s no uncertainty about what took place. Nor, indeed, for Robin. When Ex begs Robin to marry him, following the incident with Debbie, he claims that only after Debbie’s rejection did he realize his need and love for Robin. (It’s a tribute to Hewson and director James Warwick that this change of heart plays so persuasively.)
“You make these meaningless little distinctions in life,” Ex tells the skeptical Robin, suggesting he’s missed the point. In a comedy of errors, when Ex discovers another chum (Ian Alda, in a sad and funny turn as a dating loser) in Robin’s bed, he too jumps to a wrong conclusion. Ironically, it’s the ever-high Willy who recognizes the pervading uncertainty of such cases as he plays devil’s advocate to Ex’s fervent support of Whitey: “But the problem of the thing is, like, nobody fucking knows,” he says.
The play serves as a fine showcase for young actors, and they inhabit the characters convincingly on Charles Corcoran’s simple but detailed set of two dorm rooms. Hewson is a narcissistic, exuberantly randy Ex, and Maximillian Osinski is often hilarious as the drug-fueled Willy, who may be gay. Knepp is a level-headed Robin, but the role is a bit contrived. Because Robin is editor of the school paper, she probes the issue of Whitey’s dismissal and serves as a connecting thread for Whitey’s dilemma and the students’ grappling with it.
Since the second half feels somewhat detached from the first, even Robin’s climactic valedictory speech, a rumination about the university’s court settlement with Whitey, doesn’t successfully pull the whole together.
“This doesn’t feel like a fight, or a debate—not really,” she says, lamenting the black-and-white idealism she’s been taught (and suggesting that the students are a long way from grasping the complexity of life). “This feels like compromise. This feels … very hollow.” It’s a shame that a play that has so many interesting aspects doesn’t register more strongly in the whole.