Max Langert writes dialogue that pops and crackles, not just for the jokes but also because it springs from the characters. They speak to one another in the quick shorthand of coworkers under stress. Folks who know one another, perhaps too well. They can telegraph their messages, and they can needle one another persistently in an effort to keep a chaotic situation on track. There's no time or patience for introspection in the teachers' lounge at an urban Austin middle school.
The setting recalls many another farce, movie or situation comedy set in a work environment. Define your characters, set 'em to bounce off one another under stress, give 'em unexpected surprises, and let it rip. Langert sets up the qurks, director Ed Harrelson cranks up speed, and an assured cast of actors converts the characters into individuals.
They're pretty neatly divided. First are the sympathetic and believable (Louise Martin as the cynical Bendich, dismissive of the 7th grade revolt over a cancelled field trip; Jeanne Harris as Fonda, the well-meaning new substitute teacher; and above all, Jessica Medina as level-headed Wallace, whose unflinching comic control is reminiscent of Buster Keaton).
Second are the zany types (Emily Abrams as the farcically computer-illiterate loser Hopkins; Travis Holmes as Van Horn, the Beetle Bailey of the platoon; and Robert Deike as the prissy, incompetent second-in-command Norton).
And just to goose it a bit more, Ian King as construction inspector Conrad comes on from time to time, defining the school structure as unsafe and doling out hardhats to those who have to work there.
We've got complications enough for a whole television season. At the end of the school year no one has signed up to chaperone the prom. A wayward student hijacks a schoolbus for a joyride. The unseen principal convenes a meeting to discuss "important changes" that remain an enigma throughout.
English teacher Hopkins finds that the new teacher has taken over her homeroom without further explanation. The dimly conspiratorial Van Horn gets hold of the assistant principal's key ring and decides that the opportunity is too good not to exploit. While Norton as #2 is ineffectually trying to discipline a student in a series of blackout skits, the principal is struck down in the hall by an unknown assailant.
Langert has flirted with black comedy earlier in the script, as those angry 7th graders come tottering toward the main building like zombies. The tableau of the concerned teachers peering out over the parking lot is a cute reference to familiar horror film clichés.
So far, so good, but then in my view Langert takes it over the line. With the principal lying unconscious in the hall outside, this bunch follows the idiot leadership of Van Horn. They seal the injured man in black plastic garbage bags and try to hide the body. Wallace, to her credit, protests initially that they should call the police, but following the dictates of the script she becomes a co-conspirator. Much of the second act is intended to be a comic caper as Van Horn and Bendich stagger across the set, carrying the body from hiding place to hiding place.
Nope. Just not funny, except for those in the audience willing to suspend for that inert body bag the very empathy that they've willingly granted to the rest of the ensemble.
This being a farce, there's an upbeat resolution of sorts. We get to hear over the P.A. system the voice of the recovered principal. The perpetrator of the attack is identified for us and we're relieved to find that person hasn't been hanging out with us in the teacher's lounge.
We never get to see these teachers actually at work -- that is, talking to students. I understand that the ensemble wasn't aiming to recreate the high school youth follies of Welcome Back, Kotter or Happy Days. In program notes Max Langert says that his initial inspiration came from after-work happy-hour sessions with teachers, whom he admires for their courage and sacrifice.
If the action of Teacher, Teacher had included teacher-student interactions, however comic, it might not have needed to create its ha-has from actions amounting to the felony of refusing to lend assistance to a person in possibly mortal distress.
Review by Hannah Kenah in the Austin Chronicle, June 18
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