Student Affairs

On the surface, Julie and Valerie seem to have nothing in common. As played by Lauren English in Kenn Rabin’s play Reunion on SF Playhouse’s intimate Stage 2, Julie is fretful, earnest and painfully introverted, while Alexandra Creighton’s Valerie has an assured sexpot strut and an air of always posing, always performing, even in as close as she gets to normal conversation. The two of them went to the same high school, and were both in the drama program, though you don’t get the sense that they really knew each other. Val was the glamorous popular girl who took the lead in all the school plays, and Julie was too shy even to audition for them. Still, the two are inextricably linked, because they both had sex with their high school drama teacher.

Alexandra Creighton in Reunion. Photo by Jeremy Harris.

In Reunion, Tom Gillette has just been transferred to a psychiatric institution, having served a long prison sentence. He was convicted after Val testified that he raped her, years ago. Julie is obsessed with the prospect of clearing Tom’s name and hopes to get Val to confess that their long affair when she was 17 was consensual. She’s in luck, because Val’s just arrived in Berkeley, where Julie lives, and is looking for cheap accommodations with a roommate, both of which Julie can provide. Two scenes often take place at the same time, with Julie reciting a love letter to Tom in her apartment while Tom is interrogated by his therapist in the hospital.

Jeremy Harris’s split-level set depicts a nicely detailed Berkeley living room on the upper level, with bookshelves and Guatemalan art lining the walls and a yellowing off-white couch. The lower level is bare, with just a couple of mismatched office chairs and a white paneled wall looking ripe for projection. Indeed, the first thing that happens is that Tom is shown a montage (by Blake Wiers) of family and magazine photos on that wall zooming through a disturbing mix of bikini models, young children and teenagers. All the while he’s being given a penile plethysmograph test to measure his arousal. (Tom’s in darkness and his back is turned, so that’s one less disturbing image we’ll have to take home with us.)

Rabin is a longtime member of the PlayGround writers pool, and Reunion was commissioned by PlayGround from a short version that was developed through that company’s Monday night series. The SF Playhouse world premiere is a coproduction with PlayGround, and is part of the Playhouse’s Sandbox series of small-scale premieres of new works by local writers. Director Louis Parnell gives the play a sharp, effective staging with a strong cast that brings Rabin’s dialogue and characters to life vibrantly, so much so that it effectively distracts from a number of aspects of the play that still need work.

English is effectively jittery and withdrawn as Julie without becoming a caricature—her shaking feet when she comes to visit Tom are a nice touch—and her growing wariness of him and her struggle to connect with Val are both acutely uncomfortable. As written, though, she’s definitely all-consumingly obsessed with Tom, even after all these years. We’re told that Julie has been traveling in South America working to save the world and that she’s now an assistant professor, but we don’t really see either of those sides to her life. What we see is an overgrown teenage girl, shy and stunted, who’s still mooning over her high school drama teacher. A scene in which she appears as a nymphlike teenage apparition to taunt Tom over his therapist’s shoulder is a bit baffling, but that’s as much in its conception as its execution.

Creighton strikes a keen balance of blithe sexiness and stifled demons as Val, who’s addicted to being the center of attention but is also all too aware that she peaked in high school. (Both Val and Julie are now thirtyish.) Her story about why she’s compelled to pick up strange men is particularly haunting. Steve Bologna has a couple of walk-on roles as a mute and immovable guard and an absurd cowboy that Val brings home one night.

Marvin Greene is tremendously charming as Tom, compulsively flirtatious in a way that’s annoying and winning at the same time. The better we get to know him, it’s clear that his likeability isn’t an argument against his guilt in the slightest but rather what keeps getting him—and other people—into trouble. His manipulativeness isn’t exactly sinister so much as sad and increasingly transparent. He’s a man who loves women to love him, which is not quite the same thing as loving them.

Emily Rosenthal’s Dr. Rita Baird is brusque and businesslike, seemingly impervious to and actively irritated by Tom laying on the charm. She’s curiously, even unprofessionally, standoffish and overtly judgmental in their therapy sessions, which suggests something in her own back story that makes her so prickly, but if so it’s unexplored.

Much is made of the distinction between statutory rape and violent rape as to whether Tom is to be classified a violent sexual offender to be placed on watch list. I don’t know if California law actually makes such a distinction, because my impression was that 17 may as well be 4 years old as far as sex-offender registries are concerned. Frankly, that’s not the kind of thing I even want to google, but it did make me wonder if Julie’s quest to clear Tom’s name is even plausible.

The device of staging two scenes at once works well enough, though it’s not always easy to keep track of both conversational threads at the same time. It didn’t help that at the Thursday performance I saw, it was more like three scenes at once: the faint and subtle underscoring in Emily Schraeder’s sound design was drowned out entirely by a rehearsal for My Fair Lady next door.

The dialogue is lively enough, though it often gets bogged down with exposition, and waxes conspicuously poetic when it gets into Tom’s monologue. But for a play with so much expository dialogue, there are a surprising number of unanswered questions—most notably, how exactly did the tragedy in Tom’s past happen? Considering that much is made about how Tom thinks only of himself, it might also be helpful to know what the girls’ teenage lives were like before he came along. Ultimately, Tom should be pleased; even when the spotlight’s on the young women he used to know, it’s still all about him.

Through June 30
SF Playhouse Stage 2
533 Sutter St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #57 of 2012, attended June 14.

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