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Summer School

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Everyone has a favorite teacher from high school. You know, the one who made you think. The one who inspired you, who made learning seem vital, even fun. And if you didn't, popular culture will be happy to make you think you did, as every generation sees scores of novels like Good-Bye Mr. Chips, To Sir with Love and movies like Stand and Deliver, Dead Poets Society, or Dangerous Minds. This season, however, the legitimate stage is where inspirational teachers are holding class.

This year's Tony Award for Best New Play went to The History Boys, an entertainment by Alan Bennett currently running on Broadway (and such a success that it's almost certain to come to Los Angeles soon). The play--which elegantly dramatizes the debate between results-oriented teaching and old fashioned scholarship--brushes with genius, but the second act doesn't reign in all of Bennett's ideas and emotions. Luckily, Nicholas Hytner's production is so crisp and dynamic that it hides most of the play's flaws. Extra credit is earned by Richard Griffiths as Hector, the Falstaffian history teacher who's affection for his students outweighs his love of the poems of Thomas Hardy.

A filmed version with this same cast releases this fall, so even if Griffiths doesn't come with the play to LA, his larger-than-life performance can be experienced here and everywhere.

Thanks to the Matrix movies, actor Laurence Fishburne has been seen just about everywhere; but this month, the film star can be experienced live at the Taper in a production of the new play Without Walls. Fishburne plays Morocco Hemphill, whose name suggests he is a flamboyant London pot dealer, but who's actually a beloved drama teacher at a Manhattan prep school.

Like The History Boys' Hector, Fishburne's Morocco is a dynamic instructor whose sexual preferences may or may not be a danger to his students; but unlike Bennett, playwright Alfred Uhry is unable to use this conflict to create any believable tension.

Seeing the mighty Morpheus play a swishy theater queen does provide some novelty, yet Fishburne's star power and captivating stage presence can't save Uhry's D+ drama. Without Walls is only 80 minutes long, but that times creeps by at a pace I haven't experienced since high school trigonometry class.

A better way to spend those 80 minutes is the revival of David Mamet's campus cliffhanger Oleanna (currently playing in Malibu). The teacher in Mamet's two-fister is no inspiration to any of his students. He's a middling professor who rants against higher education at the same time he's trying secure tenure to buy a bigger house. First played on stage by William H. Macy, Stephen Caffrey interprets the role here in a similar genial, stammering fashion. Caffrey impresses most with his voice, employing the comfortable, confident cadences of man who likes to hear himself lecture, who prefers asking questions that he knows only he himself can answer.

These bloviations are completely lost on the professor's confused student, Carol (well-played by Darby Stanchfield). The actress is strongest in the first scene, as she gives the coed a subtle rage beneath her awkward incomprehension.

Stanchfield is not as convincing once her character assumes a power position, but this is true of the text as well. When Oleanna premiered in 1992, in the wake of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill scandal, it stirred controversy and was seen as a topical piece about sexual harassment. Fifteen years later, the play stands on its own without extracurricular baggage. Oleanna may lack the fluidity of Mamet's other power plays like Glengarry Glen Ross or American Buffalo, but it remains a incisive indictment of academia. With strong performers, it still has the ability to stun an audience silent and this simple but effective production directed by Taylor Nichols does just that.

Oleanna runs through this Sunday at the Malibu Stage Company; Without Walls continues at the Mark Taper Forum through July 16.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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