“Yo Hannah, this class is so fucking boring, I'd shit, if I didn't take this one primo dump this a.m. Which I'd like to chuck at this a-hole cunt of a teacher making me take this ass-wipe test, I like what you're wearing. … When all I can think about is that blow job, you're the best, whataya say five minutes after they read off the last name and hand Doug Zenicky, that fat fuck, his diploma, we chuck the beyond gay cap and gown and make you a woman under the mother-fucking bleachers we can kiss goodbye, unless you're free tonight. BTW, what is Mark Twain's real name, A, B, C, or none of the above? Like I care. —You know who.”
The missive above, penned by graduating high school senior Joe Marks (Kanin Guntzelman) to his cheerleader girlfriend, Hannah (Jessica McKee), during a final exam in their English class, gets intercepted midpass by the teacher, Miss Edwards (Maria Gobetti), on the day of her retirement. Joe is en route to play basketball for the University of North Carolina, while Miss Edwards is about to embark on a new career in real estate, where, she presumes, her knowledge will actually be welcomed by the people she bestows it on, rather than ridiculed in the likes of Joe's scatological prose.
This West Coast premiere of Lissa Levin's comedy Sex and Education just opened at Burbank's Victory Theatre. Among the play's many charms is the twist that Miss Edwards is neither shocked nor upset by the insulting note and the value system it represents. She's beyond caring, or so she says. It is therefore with some blend of glee and sadism that she holds Joe hostage after class, by himself, as the sun goes down and, with his graduation hanging in the balance, forces him to rewrite the letter with a clear thesis and three statements of support, all written in complete sentences.
“A-hole cunt” is a mixed metaphor, she explains, despite the proximity of the body parts scribbled so carelessly in the note.
“You were applying those characteristics of someone typified as an asshole and those of a cunt. … An asshole being a jerk and a cunt being a bitch, just so we're on the same page. … Now, I've known both and I've been both, but not usually at the same time. So I'm guessing that you were trying to be not only colorful with the language, you were, in the hierarchy of profanity, placing me on a pedestal. Not just a cunt, but an a-hole of a cunt.”
While Joe squirms and tries feebly to rebel against the quality of her mind (“Don't you want to go home and watch PBS?” he pleads) and her cavalier determination to accomplish something meaningful in her career, he's forced to analyze his own excremental writing, and to improve upon it.
What is the purpose of this note? Is it a love letter? How well does his describing the quality of his bowel movements serve the purpose of wooing his beloved cheerleader?
Or is the purpose of the note actually to get the answer to the multiple-choice question related to Mark Twain? His request for this comes tucked into the end, so was all that went before a ruse of flattery in order simply to get the name on Mark Twain's birth certificate?
Before one commits pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, one must know one's purpose, Miss Edwards insists, in an unsolicited and unwanted life lesson.
Sex and Education is in a tradition of Educator Plays — from Shaw's Pygmalion and its musical adaptation, My Fair Lady, to Terrence McNally's Master Class — that use the erudite and embittered teacher as the embodiment of a fading era in general, and fading youth in particular.
The comedy has particularly strong traction in our economy, with reports of our manufacturing base going overseas, and our future hinging on intellectual property. What will happen to our intellectual property if we continue to decimate school funding, along with any kind of priority on the kind of intellectual rigor that Miss Edwards represents?
Joe, too, has some potent arguments, drawing allegories for success and for a certain quality of life in the design and strategy of basketball — about which Miss Edwards knows woefully little. This lifts Levin's play from a petulant screed into the arena of a Socratic debate about what one needs in order to live well, and what living well actually means.
Yet as scrupulous as Miss Edwards is, with her ability to diagnose, dissect and improve a sentence with discipline and economy, playwright Levin could use Miss Edwards as a dramaturg.
The opening scene, depicting Joe's foiled attempt to pass his note, may not even be necessary, a problem compounded by a classroom depicted with only two students present for a final exam. There's little reason why the report of Joe's attempt at cheating couldn't be folded into the following after-class scene, which is where the bona fide conflict gets under way.
Furthermore, the play is punctuated with characters, in an otherwise realistic setting, breaking aside to tell the audience their true feelings. This is not Shakespearean, it's gratuitous: The information delivered by fourth-wall telegram could easily be revealed within the scenes. The breakaways are so frequent they upset the rhythm, despite director Dan Guntzelman's best efforts to sustain it. The device feels as lazily conceived as Joe's note.
Less intrusive, and slightly less dubious, is the use of the cheerleader to burst into the showdown between Miss Edwards and Joe with a sparklingly rendered idiotic cheer, underscoring themes that are being discussed. The device certainly adds a coating of silliness, which has mixed results: It begs us not to take things too seriously, the downside being that it begs us not to take things too seriously. Perhaps the perception of the tone is better left to the director and to the audience's receptors, despite McKee's ebullient performance.
The evening's ultimate salvation lies in the rapport between teacher Gobetti and student Guntzelman. Though Gobetti faltered in some of the longer passages at the performance I attended, she can deliver a wry one-liner with the best of them — little daggers flicked into her opponent with a wink and a smile.
“Miss Edwards, school's over, people are cleaning out their lockers,” Joe pleads near the start of their showdown, aching to go home, to which she replies, “The year sure flew by, didn't it?” with the sweetest of smiles. This is torture dripped in honey, and she's relishing every drop.
Guntzelman provides an oaf's swagger that teeters into desperation. When he starts his roll on the philosophy of life as seen through basketball, he also reveals a penetrating intelligence.
Gary Randall's set fills the theater with the high school bulletin boards, seat-desks and a chalkboard in colors that underscore the production's wavering tone, between earnestness and parody.
SEX AND EDUCATION | By Lissa Levin | Victory Theatre Center | 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m. | Through July 10 | (818) 841-5421 | thevictorytheatrecenter.org.