The Midtown International Theatre Festival
The ivory towers of academia may be perfectly positioned for tickling or toppling, but they need considerably more pressure than James V. O'Connor applies in his play Literary Disruption. In it, a tweedy university's snob-heavy English faculty sniffles ineffectually as a new hire versed in Native American literature, Dr. Katherine Davis (Olivia Horton), starts sucking up affection, attention, and money, all before crucial plot twists paint her as something more devious than merely a clueless newcomer. Yet these left-thinking folks are concerned enough with their own social and political viewpoints to blame society even after sheís repudiated it in all its callousness.
Huh? While such elite "educators" are certainly ripe for parody or satire (as in Richard Nelsonís Some Americans Abroad), everyone here is too unbelievable for the accusations to sting. Two professors are "millionaire Marxists," one (Barbara Miluski) a former Vietnam protestor who refers to her anti-war action as "revolution" and the other (Bobbi Owens) a sophisticated African-American woman who sees everything through the discrimination lens. Yet another professor, Daniel (Ben Sloane) is a former seminarian who chickened out before his vows; while the department head (James Cronin) can't even seem to manage simple conversations or see beyond the next entry in his date planner. Only a student liaison (Emilie Soffe) suspects anything is amiss with Katherine.
But ribbing of this nature works only if the subjects are isolated, not imbeciles. Katherine's attacks on their minds and their finances eventually grow so psychotic that you can't believe they'd really take no action. (Would anyone in Daniel's position really wave away a $17,000 charge on his credit card, even if he knew the perpetrator was the woman who devirginized him?) And though they pop a lot of buzzwords, they donít come across as sufficiently stuffy to convince you they canít perceive a world outside their department. Plus, Katherine's actions are both so bald as to generate no suspense at all (the second act finds her moving from office to office, scamming each professor anew) and poorly justified on their own terms ó she was mistreated by her Texan mother (a saucy Ann Dawson), who didn't mind farming out her daughter's body to preserve a mythical gentility.
Such broad strokes, which are repeated almost across the board in the acting, hurt more than help O'Connor's contention that these hot-air holier-than-thou types are prime for pin-popping. By making them so meek and their tormenter so strong, OíConnor inspires too much of the kind of sympathy the play claims it wants to avoid. The play's tagline may read "You can't judge a book by its cover," but Literary Disruption seems to exist for no other concrete reason than to prove that sometimes you can indeed do just that.