Ethan Hawke, Calista Flockhart, Anthony Rapp, and Steve Zahn were all in the play’s premiere production at Playwrights Horizons, and all have since gone on to considerable success on stage and screen. (The veteran actor Austin Pendleton was also in the cast, as was Sherman.) And one suspects it’s possible that these uniquely gifted and charismatic performers were vital to what success the play enjoyed, transforming the group of needy, whiny, and horny college students they played into something bigger and deeper than Sherman himself could manage.
Without such talents in those roles, however, the play seems more like a collection of seams than it does a tapestry depicting selfishness and uncertainty at two of life’s turning points. Sherman’s attempts to draw parallels between the experiences of a quintet of straight young people preparing for graduation from a New England college and the professor who’s been accused of molesting one of their peers would be iffy under the best of circumstances. But other structural issues prevent circumstances from ever even getting good.
The first act is largely a did-he-or-didn’t-he potboiler about the travails of professor Whitey McCoy and the student Jack Kahn. Each admits that a vodka-fueled night over Thanksgiving break led to Jack getting naked and spending the night in Whitey’s bed, but otherwise their details diverge dramatically. The university’s president, Quintana Matheson, hopes to sweep everything under the rug, but the relentless investigation of a student reporter, Robin Smith, and her wagon-circling friends who believe in Whitey does not make it easy.
All of this is essentially abandoned in the second act, which is set toward the end of the students’ senior year, after Whitey has left his job for the path to redemption of both the monetary and the Alcoholics Anonymous varieties. The five students find themselves stymied in their own pursuits of truth, whether camouflaged as love, sex, or professional significance, preferably while trying to avoid the kind of fate that befell Whitey. One is a rich white kid with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement, another is hardcore partier, another cripplingly introspective, and one is a young woman who realizes to her horror that she’s become nothing at all.
It doesn’t take long to realize that the rest of the play is on just her track. The chasm-wide incongruities between the two stories, the scenes’ alternately choppy and dragging construction, and the too-easy moralizing present in keystone monologues for both Whitey (at AA) and Robin (at graduation) and in the revelation that Matheson is a conservative trying to destroy the gay Whitey for political purposes tend to jumble matters rather than clarify them. You’re not aware of where Sherman is trying to go until you realize that he hasn’t quite gotten there. To be fair, Sherman wrote the play in his early 20s, so a few failures in experimenting with form and style are to be expected. But such explorations don’t guarantee anything workable, and not much of Sophistry ultimately works.
That’s true even in this well-intentioned and decently realized production, which James Warwick has sensibly if unexcitingly directed. The set (by Charles Corcoran) is a suitably utilitarian combination of two cleverly nondescript college dorm rooms. Natalie Knepp brings a sophisticated edge to the driven Robin and Charlie Hewson to the deserves-it-all Xavier, who’s willing to take everything he can and yell at everything he can’t. The other actors, who include Ellen Dolan (of As the World Turns) as Matheson, Ian Alda as the perpetually frustrated sensitive man, Maximillian Osinski as the heaviest of the drinkers, and Michael Carbonaro as Jack, do what they can with their flimsy roles, but they can’t do much.
The most natural element here is Jonathan Hogan, who plays Whitey. Recently seen in Keen Company’s Heroes (which, interestingly, was performed just across the hall), he finds both the violence and the gentleness in a man who doesn’t understand his life any more than his students do theirs. Hogan presents a mild but compelling view of a man as inclined to self-destruction as they are, and he makes Whitey’s forced evolution from child to adult - like Robin’s - as moving and psychologically involving as anything here can be.
But that’s not much. The play satisfies as neither a Doubt or Oleanna-style who-done-what nor as pointed coming-and-going-of-age exposé like the kind Christopher Shinn or Adam Rapp might write. Like so many of its characters, it’s caught in an unsteady position between extremes. Robin describes the unknowable situation between Whitey and Jack as being one of “two truths, or none at all.” That’s Sophistry in a nutshell, although it leans toward to the latter.