Center Theater Studio Theater

These days, it’s easy to write off A.R. Gurney as an upper-class WASP playwright whose every play eventually touches on the same topic: the allegedly declining influence of WASP culture. And it’s hard not to resent, if only a little, the privileged characters who populate Gurney’s plays: the boozed-up businessman in The Cocktail Hour, complaining in his comfortable home to his equally boozed- up wife (who doesn’t have to work) about how “nobody cares about our way of life.” Or the middle-aged professor in The Perfect Party, with his nice house and his great tenured position at the university.

But Gurney does more in his plays than merely mirror upper-class attitudes and mores. For one, Gurney, who’s a tenured professor at MIT, keeps the WASP power elite at an ironic distance in his work, spending as much time puncturing his puffed-up WASP protagonists as he spends puffing them up. For another, he has an exquisite sense of dramatic structure. There is nothing slipshod or bloated about his writing. His stories unfold at a comfortable pace; his dialogue is at once polished and believable; and his work often resonates on several levels–in Cocktail Hour, for example, the play that the playwright son describes to his boozy but successful businessman father turns out to be the play we are watching.

Finally, Gurney doesn’t shy away from exploring the darker sides of his characters: their alcoholism, their self-pity, their muted fear and distrust of all the non-Anglo-Saxons in America who would like a piece of the American pie.

All three of these strengths appear in the Center Theater’s production of Another Antigone, along with a fourth quality not often associated with Gurney’s writing, a quality I attribute as much to John Carlile’s direction and cast as to Gurney’s text–depth of feeling.

To be fair, the play itself is a richly layered work. Another Antigone is a clever retelling of Sophocles’ popular story of Theban princess Antigone, who clashes with her uncle Creon, the king of Thebes, over whether her brother, who died leading a rebellion against Creon, should be given a proper burial. In Gurney’s version, the action is transposed to a modern university and the characters become a headstrong student named Judy Miller and an equally stubborn and unyielding authority figure, Professor Harper.

On a deeper level, Another Antigone is a wry comedy about academic life that lampoons pompous profs and foolish students alike. Miller and the professor clash over the issue of whether Judy’s own laughably sophomoric but politically correct version of Antigone, portions of which we hear throughout the play, is acceptable as a substitute for the final term paper in Harper’s course on Greek tragedy. Ultimately this conflict between student and teacher becomes big enough to involve the dean of the department, partly because Judy Miller is a highly esteemed student (having already received a great job offer) and partly because Professor Harper’s classes are so unpopular he is in danger of being forced into early retirement.

At a deeper level still, Another Antigone tackles the thorny subject of anti-Semitism, a subject that Gurney merely touches on in The Perfect Party and The Middle Ages but that is a major plot point here. Miller eventually accuses Harper of not giving her credit for her Antigone because she’s Jewish, and her accusation isn’t unfounded: it seems that Professor Harper has been charged with being anti-Semitic in the past because of his unfortunate fondness for making sweeping generalizations in his classes comparing what he considers to be “the two fundamental themes in Western culture. The Greek and the Hebraic. Odysseus versus Abraham. Public honor versus private conscience.”

(Such comparisons are ludicrous, of course, as Gurney pointed out in an interview two years ago in the New York Times. After all, Greek culture itself was riven by the conflict between public and private morality; even in Sophocles’ Antigone the major conflict is between Creon’s sense of his duty as king to uphold the order and Antigone’s private need to give her brother a proper burial.)

It’s clear from the text that Harper’s anti-Semitism arises out of the fact that he feels threatened by his young, brilliant, and undeniably rebellious Jewish student. Still, I have to admit to wishing Gurney had come out more strongly and less ambiguously against anti-Semitism. Instead, he lampoons both Harper’s insensitivity and Miller’s paranoia, and even, at one point, has Miller shout the sort of line only a WASP playwright could create for a Jewish character: “It’s true what my grandmother said! You people always turn your backs when the chips are down!” (I’ve never in my life met a Jewish grandmother who used poker metaphors.)

The Center Theater production brings out all the richness of Another Antigone, thanks in no small part to John Carlile’s direction. Carlile, who up to now has been known for directing his own adaptations (like the Next Theatre’s production of E.E. Cummings’s The Enormous Room two seasons ago), proves himself quite adept at working with someone else’s text for a change. He brings out all of Gurney’s wit without slighting for a moment the development of Gurney’s characters. In fact, Carlile’s skill as a director allows him to uncover the not-often- revealed emotional subtext beneath the play’s witty and polished exterior.

Praise for the fact that these characters seem more than mere comic stock characters–the pedant, the righteous student, the ignored counselors with the best advice–must be shared with Carlile’s terrific cast. John McCormack in particular is magnificent as Professor Harper, able to play both Harper’s pompous and vulnerable sides, making his fall from grace all the more touching. After all the bad plays and bad productions I’ve seen McCormack in in the past year (Nurse Jane Goes to Hawaii, Celebrity Beat), it’s a pleasure to see him in a production worthy of his talents.

Suzanne Carney, too, deserves a line or two for her restrained portrayal of Judy Miller. Lesser actors might have made Miller into a stereotypical Jewish princess or, worse still, a strident student radical. Carney plays Miller as an adolescent whose rebellion is two parts suspicion of the adult world and one part breaking away from her overbearing parents. If every production of Gurney’s work were as successfully conceived and executed as this one, Chicago might see that Gurney is much more than just another WASP playwright.