Steven Drukman, a playwright who teaches at New York University, has written what may be his best play — a sparkling academic comedy that spins its tantalizing web from, of all arcane things, the literary theory of Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and the other French critics and philosophers who, in focusing on the inherent instability of language, ushered in a new paradigm of critical reading known as deconstruction.
Before you start fretting that "Death of the Author," which is having its world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse's Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater in a slyly humorous production directed by Bart DeLorenzo, will be all about signs, signifiers and heavily jargonized abstractions, let me assure you that the play is perfectly accessible. Even if you weren't a graduate student in the late decades of the 20th century poring over Derrida's "Of Grammatology" and Barthes' watershed essay "The Death of the Author," from which Drukman has filched his title, this satire of modern campus life will still sting.
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this post contained a photo caption that failed to identify the three actors as David Clayton Rogers, left, Austin Butler and Orson Bean.
What's more, there's a compelling theatrical reason to see Drukman's latest, which loses its way in its final scene but is invigorated by the delightful star turn of Orson Bean, who plays J. Trumbull Sykes, the acting head of the English department of the elite university where the play is set. This is a performance not to be missed.
An academic eccentric with little patience for bureaucratic rules, Bean's Trumbull is an elegantly doddering creation, addressing his interlocutors as "darling" (the way real life academic superstar Harold Bloom would refer to students as "my dear"), basking in his "celebrity genius" reputation and eager to bring boring departmental proceedings to a quick close so he can savor another extra dry martini with a young colleague.
Trumbull doesn't appear until after the plot is established in an opening scene involving Jeff (David Clayton Rogers), an adjunct professor occupying a basement office that establishes his place in the pecking order, and Bradley (Austin Butler), a graduating senior with a privileged pedigree who has written a final paper consisting entirely of unattributed quotations.
Plagiarism is the charge, deconstruction is the alibi, and Trumbull will be called upon to play intermediary in a tense standoff that reveals communication to be every bit as unreliable as Barthes and company claimed it to be.
Bradley, a smooth operator with long, flowing blond hair and skinny rich kid style, doesn't appear to recognize his crime. A pre-law student with a double major in political science and math, he took Jeff's seminar on genre as a way of filling gaps in his liberal arts education. But instead of reading "Hamlet" or "Great Expectations," he found himself puzzling over abstruse literary theory whose essential tenets he took literally.
When Trumbull says to him, "As I read it, by stringing together quotes of aphorisms, novels, manifestoes and so on, what you've done is concoct a parody of an academic paper," Bradley responds with another quote: "Parody is all that's possible, when there's no original text."
These postmodernists are being hoisted by their own petard by a student who hasn't even read the majority of the works he's stealing from. Bradley's ex-girlfriend Sarah (Lyndon Smith from the NBC series "Parenthood") is the mastermind behind this exercise in elaborate pastiche. A former student of Trumbull's, she advised Bradley to begin by quoting "Tristram Shandy" (which would be "quoting quotes of quotes") and then let a Google search ("authors' quotes about literature") furnish the rest of his paper's content.
Drukman, whose previous plays include "Prince of Atlantis" at South Coast Repertory and "In This Corner" at the Old Globe, is more successful at setting up this situation than he is at resolving it. He delves into academic politics, the corporatization of the university, the rise of theory over literature and the plight of adjunct faculty, all from the perspective of someone who knows this embattled terrain intimately.
But it sometimes seems that the playwright can't decide which direction to pursue. Plot strands get increasingly tangled. There's the matter of Jeff's visiting faculty position now being jeopardized by this snowballing plagiarism scandal. There's the sexual undercurrent between gay Jeff and straight Bradley, whose rapport is further challenged by social class differences. There's the rekindling of Bradley and Sarah's relationship and the back story of why Bradley refuses to drive a car (a traumatic event that gives the play's title a literal spin).
Drukman flirts with a vengeful "Oleanna" scenario but ultimately settles for a conventional sitcom-y ending that seems especially prosaic against the backdrop of all this theory. Perhaps the point is that communication can only flourish when ideological assumptions are examined and good faith is exercised, but the dramatic writing in the final exchange between Jeff and Bradley is hackneyed.
DeLorenzo stages the play on a mirrored set by Takeshi Kata that suggested to me a Lacanian joke but wound up merely emphasizing the vanity of this academic environment, where appearances are never exactly what they seem. It's a bold design choice, but it quickly wears out its welcome.
The production benefits greatly from its attractive, well-tuned cast. Rogers' Jeff may be too glamorously coiffed and attired for a newly minted PhD from a "poor white trash" background subsisting on paltry adjunct wages, but his performance is note-perfect in all his interpersonal exchanges.
Equally good is Butler, who effectively balances Bradley's insecurity and sense of entitlement, though there's a curious tentativeness to the characterization that seems to derive from Drukman's make-nice sentimentality.
Sarah injects mischief, though her character isn't well developed. Smith lends her as much textured individuality as she can, but Drukman's plot doesn't take full advantage of her possibilities.
But there is a character in "Death of the Author" who is fully theatrically fleshed out — Bean's Trumbull, a lauded scholar who prances about the campus like a New York Public Library lion sprung to life. In his long and distinguished career, Bean has etched many memorable characters, but Trumbull is a scholarly Falstaff who deserves a comedy all his own.
'Death of the Author'