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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Quartermaine's Terms: Affecting Revival of Simon Gray's Bleak Comedy-Drama

Also see Bob's review of The Price

Quartermaine's Terms
(l-r, standing): Jay Gaussoin, Christopher Young, Andrew Boyer (l-r, sitting): Steven Dennis, Steven L. Barron, Katrina Ferguson, Becky Engborg
Otherwise best known in the States for his plays Butley and Otherwise Engaged, England's Simon Gray has arguably written his finest play in the 1981 Quartermaine's Terms. It is set in the early 1960s in Cambridge at a mediocre school which teaches English, and British customs and traditions, to foreign students. In an ineffably sad and moving manner, it chronicles two and a half years in the lives of seven of the school's faculty and administrators.

A strong cast under the sensitive direction of Carl Wallnau illuminates the rich detail which Gray provides for his multifaceted characters, and provides New Jersey theatregoers with a rare and welcome opportunity to experience this exceptional play.

If you have not previously encountered Quartermaine's Terms, please be aware that the following contains spoilers which this writer deems necessary in order to properly critique and analyze.

Although he is the titular character and stands at the center of the play, St. John (pronounced Sin-jin) Quartermaine remains a cipher throughout. We learn almost nothing of his background and history, and nothing in his life changes until his professional life crumbles at the end. We do know that he lives alone in a rooming house and does not travel when school is out. It seems apparent that he has no outside social life. It would not be hard to conclude that he has suffered from a nervous breakdown earlier on. However, no cause is proffered for his inability to focus sufficiently to either teach or conduct social relationships successfully. Quartermaine is always the first to enter and the last to leave the faculty staff room in which each scene is set. He seeks to socialize (sometimes obtusely interferingly) with the other faculty members, and eagerly allows himself to be used by them (most often, it is as a babysitter). They have neither the humanity, patience or courtesy to otherwise include him in their lives. Steven Dennis sustains the open and artless vacuity of St. John with great skill and delicacy.

Meanwhile, the other six educators encounter boatloads of changes throughout a play which is chockablock with incident. As they encounter upheavals in their lives, it becomes more and more clear that each is wrapped up in his or her own problems, and largely lacking to one extent or another true concern for the other members of this workplace family.

Eddie is co-principal of the school along with the unseen Thomas. Although he feigns bonhomie to his staff, he is a petty and ineffectual would-be tyrant who nitpicks foolishly. His tolerance of St. John is borne of ineffectiveness rather than compassion. Andrew Boyer captures the full measure of this ineffectual and distasteful glad hander.

There are two female teachers. Anita is a young woman who displays more kindness to St. John than the others. However, she has her own problems in the form of a philandering husband who has forced her to have three abortions. Katrina Ferguson conveys a sense of sadness and decency in what may be the only truly likeable role in the play. Ferguson also nicely conveys the chagrin which comes from discovering that getting what one has wanted can be quite disappointing.

Becky Engborg is the smooth spoken, glib, seemingly in control Melanie. Unhappily unwed, she is crumbling inside, just below the surface. The story of her melodramatic relationship with her mother could fill two plays. Suffice it to say that she lives with and cares for her savagely cruel mother. Once a distinguished academic, her mother disdains Melanie's position ("schools for foreigners are for failures"). Engborg is outstanding as she depicts with great control the various stages of slippage of Melanie's calm and assured façade.

Although there is humor in Gray's depiction of most of this crew, it is particularly evident in the persons of teachers Derek and Mark. Derek, the physically inept newly hired part-timer who is chronically prone to accidents, is well played by Christopher Young. Young succeeds in revealing a callous nature without losing touch with the humor. Mark is an untalented incipient novelist whose wife has left him, taking their son with her, because of his single-minded obsession with his writing. Jay Gaussoin is fine as the harried and hysterical Mark whose salvation is his realization that he is not a novelist.

High praise is due to Steven L. Barron in a role which epitomizes that which is best about author Simon Gray. Barron plays Henry, the school's "academic tutor." Henry is not an easy character to get a fix on. He is a pompous bull artist (note his speech about how Americans remember new peoples' names better than the English, whereas the English are empirical and get to know the person before remembering the name – "nominals vs. realists"). Henry frequently seeks out St. John to sit for his children, but shows precious little appreciation. On the other hand, Henry chides part-timer Derek for bad mouthing St. John with the goal of improving his own lot at the school, and he is certainly sympathetically human as he suffers the spiraling and tragic unraveling of his teenage daughter as she falls short of her academic goals. Ultimately, when he assumes the role of sole principal of the school, Henry coldly and cruelly discharges St. John. It may well be that the removal of St. John from his position is long overdo. However, this does not ameliorate his cold hearted cruelty. Although there is no doubt that people commonly display contradictory behavior, all too often, writers are unable to believably contain varying facets in their creations. Not so Simon Gray. Gray creates the most complex and dimensional characters, integrating their feelings and behaviors so that they become fully credible, well rounded and three dimensional. This is particularly true of Quartermaine's Henry, and Barron fully reveals this in his deftly nuanced performance.

John Hobbie has designed a solid, realistic set. Julia Sharp's costume appear lived in and are most character appropriate.

There is some fun had when it seems none of our educators can remember which classic play is in town (Chekhov, Ibsen, Strindberg?). It seems here that Gray is having fun with the intellectual short fall of his educators. However, there does appear to be a barb at Chekhov when Melanie hilariously says re: The Cherry Orchard:

[I] loath it. All that Russian gloom and doom and people shooting themselves from loneliness and depression and that sort of thing. But then Mother says I don't understand comedy.

Actually, Chekhov's masterpieces are less bleak than Gray's Chekhovian play at hand. Chekhov valued and respected his lost souls. Virtually all have an inner grandeur and dignity which is moving and admirable. We know that they will make as much of their lives as their circumstances permit. On the other hand, Simon Gray views his sad, clownish academics as self-centered mediocrities worthy of disdain and ridicule. And who is to say that he is wrong?

Parenthetically, on another level, it also seems that Quartermaine could be intended as a stand-in for the once powerful British empire.

For the play's final scene, a hastily called emergency meeting at the school, St. John is dressed in a beautiful silk tuxedo. It is assumed by the others that he has plans for a major Christmas season night out. The fact is that his landlady had found a box of his which she had stored for him since he moved in with her. Finding the tux there, St. John was in the midst of trying it on when he was summoned. Sadly, his chichi English name and that silk tuxedo are all that remain of a life unknown to us that must once had been filled with bright promise.

Quartermaine's Terms continues performances (Thurs. 7:30 p.m./ Fri., Sat. 8 p.m./ Sun. 2:30 p.m.) through March 11, 2007 at the Centenary Stage Company, in residence at Centenary College, 400 Jefferson Street, Hackettstown, NJ 07840. Box Office: 908-979-0900; online www.centenarystageco.org.

Quartermaine's Terms by Simon Gray; directed by Carl Wallnau

Cast
St. John Quartermaine…………….Steven Dennis
Anita Manchip…………….Katarina Ferguson
Mark Sackling……………………....Jay Gaussoin
Eddie Loomis……………………..Andrew Boyer
Derek Meadle……………...Christopher Young
Henry Windscape……………..Steven L. Barron
Melanie Garth…………………...Becky Engborg


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- Bob Rendell



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