"The aim of the poet is to inform or delight, or to combine together … both pleasure and applicability to life."
These words of the Roman poet Horace remain encoded in our cultural DNA. Even after the artistic revolutions incited by the Romantics, the realists and the various rabble-rousing factions of the avant-garde, the expectation endures that art should instruct or entertain or, better still, do both at the same time.
Horace hard-liners, a conservative crew who would rather be educated by artists than amused by them, would no doubt cast a disapproving eye on the Echo Theater Company's indecorous (though sensationally acted) production of "Firemen," a daring new play by Tommy Smith that treats the relationship between a school secretary in her late 30s and a 14-year-old boy as a kind of twisted love story.
On the surface, there's nothing morally edifying about this scenario. To make matters worse, the playwright refuses to explicitly condemn any of the characters.
The final scene of the play — spoiler alert for those planning to see the work, which has been extended through March 30 at Echo's new home in Atwater Village — revolves around a visit Ben (Ian Bamberg) pays years later to Susan (Rebecca Gray), who's serving a jail sentence for her crime. Now of age, he confesses he's still in love with her.
The drama ends not with blistering recriminations or aching regrets but with the two of them listening to Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight," a rock ballad as hauntingly baffling as adolescence itself.
Could the playwright be an apologist for statutory rape? I would argue no, just as I would contend that Martin Scorsese isn't condoning the rapacious greed and debauchery depicted in lurid detail in "The Wolf of Wall Street." The absence of moral outrage shouldn't be taken as an endorsement of reprehensible behavior.
An author doesn't need to infiltrate a work with a surrogate spokesperson assuring an audience of his personal rectitude. What's more, we don't expect, as the Neoclassicists and their Old Hollywood descendants once did, that poetic justice will be observed, with the good being rewarded and the bad duly punished. Life doesn't work that way, so why should representations of it?
The better poets have understood Horace's appeal for enlightenment as an inquiry into the nature of truth, which even in its uglier guises trumps packaged wisdom. A work should be judged not by the value of the moral nugget it provides but by the complexity it presents and the insight it bestows.
Yet ethics aren't so easily separated from aesthetics. The word "taste," defined by the dictionary as "the ability to notice, appreciate and judge what is beautiful, appropriate, or harmonious, or what is excellent in art, music, decoration, clothing, etc.," subtly conflates the two realms. In short, what is artistically "appropriate" to one may be wildly inappropriate to another — and for reasons that have little to do with color scheme.
There are a few sexually explicit scenes in "Firemen" that are intended to make audiences squirm, but the challenge is to see them in the context of the drama as a whole. For me, the story that Smith is telling isn't quite as persuasive or profound as the one the actors, under the sensitive direction of Echo artistic director Chris Fields, are supplementing.
Smith, an actor turned dramatist, is drawn to incendiary material. In writing about Smith's drama "White Hot," playwright Craig Lucas placed the author in the dangerous, polarizing tradition of Sarah Kane and Edward Bond.
With "Firemen," Smith seems to be combining a version of one of those sensationalized tabloid cover stories with a Freudian family drama. His method is observational, suggestive, nonjudgmental — and incomplete.
The most powerful scene in the play dramatizes the warping effect Susan is having on Ben. While baby-sitting for her son, Kyle (Zach Callison), Ben sexually attacks him. Ben comes to his senses but not before inflicting damage and revealing his own.
The scene serves a similar purpose to the drug-addled one in "The Wolf of Wall Street," in which Leonardo DiCaprio's character drools all over himself while crawling on all fours before totaling his ludicrously expensive sports car. If Scorsese was in danger of being seduced by the fast life, here he made unambiguously clear the wretched degradation of this playboy Ponzi-schemer.
Ben's sputtering torment, a victim turned victimizer, similarly editorializes itself — there's no need for sermonizing captions. But the play then shifts focus to the changes going on in his home life. Annie (Amanda Saunders), Ben's single mother, has taken up with Gary (Michael McColl), who happens to be the substitute teacher who monitored Ben in detention hall in the play's opening scene.
Smith wisely doesn't seek to connect all the Oedipal dots, but there are a few too many lacunas in his drama. It's left to the actors to hint at the psychological ramifications of the story.
Fortunately, the play is superbly acted, as Echo productions nearly always are. Gray's portrayal of stunted, shrewdly manipulative, aggressively mousy Susan has deservedly received its share of praise. I was equally impressed with Bamberg's mutely shattered Ben, a boy overwhelmed by experience he's not mature enough to sort through. The abuse he suffers is all the more disturbing for his inability to name it.
"Firemen" is a provocative study that becomes enlightening mostly in the scrupulously observed, moment-to-moment behavior of its cast. The truthfulness of the acting, rooted in the verisimilitude of Smith's writing, doesn't shield this controversial play from criticism. But it does provide rescue from more inflammatory charges.
If Horace might find fault, another Roman writer, Terence, could be brought to the playwright's defense with his timeless dictum: "I am a human being; nothing human can be alien to me."