"Parody is all that's possible when there's no original text," says college senior Bradley (Austin Butler) to adjunct English professor Jeff (David Clayton Rogers) as he cuts to the heart of the conflict in Steven Drukman's entertaining and thought-provoking world-premiere Death of the Author. Bradley has been accused of plagiarism by Jeff, who brings the case to J. Trumbull Sykes (a fantastic Orson Bean), his department chair, a celebrity professor and a favorite teacher of Bradley's ex-girlfriend Sarah (Lyndon Smith).
Jeff, who finally has a chance at tenure, insists on following the lengthy, university-mandated process for cases of plagiarism. He also insists on traditional academic values and principles. Bradley, a week from graduating, cannot accept that timeline, and even when he's allowed to redo the assignment, the yellow flag that would mark his transcript sends him into panic and back to Sarah for help.
As the backstories of these characters are revealed, Drukman cleverly explores ambition, class and postmodernism in the digital age (as the play's title foreshadows), all while skewering academia and the self-esteem generation. When accusations based on literal truths emerge, there are flashes of David Mamet's Oleanna, but this tale is far less dark and surely not misogynistic.
Early on, the jokes and exposition feel a bit sitcom-y at times, but once Sykes hits the stage with his verbal fireworks, the show finds its legs and grows ever more interesting. Director Bart DeLorenzo's work with the talented cast is laudable, but the mirrored-wall set he creates with designer Takeshi Kata - reminiscent of a '70s disco or a sci-fi film - seems strangely out of place, even with its potentially postmodern reflections.
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Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; through June 29. (310) 208-5454, www.geffenplayhouse.com.
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