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Robert Gonzales Jr.
Leanne Linsky
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Open: 10/06/10- Close: 10/16/10 Dead White Males:
A Year In The Trenches Of Teaching

Reviewed for By: Heather Violanti

Justin Boykin ©2023  Leanne Linsky and Brady Adair

In the opening scene of DEAD WHITE MALES: A YEAR IN THE TRENCHES OF TEACHING, a fifth grader stumps school administrators with the word “Kafkaesque.”  Her teacher, earnest newbie Janet, helpfully explains this means a sense of “surreal distortion and impending danger.”   And it’s the danger that’s occasionally lacking from Tongue in Cheek Theater’s otherwise sterling production. 

 Part of this is down to staging—a violent confrontation loses credibility with some awkward pacing and sound effects.  Part of this is Downs’ script, which piles on the issues a little too fast and thick towards the end.   From Creationism versus Darwinism to freedom of speech to pedophilia, it’s quick leap to a student wielding a gun—a plot turn which, as much as that student has suffered (he was a victim of the pedophilic principal), feels shoehorned onto the script.  Yes, this confrontation demonstrates how absolute corruption corrupts absolutely—but it emerges and resolves itself so quickly it shortchanges a play that is usually much more complex and unpredictable.

Justin Boykin ©2023  Leanne Linsky, Robert Gonzales Jr. and Shana Wiersum

 Despite its wobbly ending, for much of the time, DEAD WHITE MALES is a trenchant critique of America’s education system in crisis.   It satirizes inane educational bureaucracy while charting one hopeful teacher’s disillusionment.  The administrators of Thomas Paine Middle School—self-importantly chirpy Principal Pettlogg, shallowly proud Master Teacher Burns, evangelically bombastic Dr. Mandias—are so cruel and clueless they don’t realize they’re destroying the very children they’re supposed to nurture.  Meanwhile, new teacher Janet dreams of exploring new ideas with her students and winning the Golden Apple Teaching Award.  After a year, her expectations are crushed.  Principal Pettlogg turns out to be a pedophile, while Master Teacher Burns cares more about regulations than actual human beings.  Most sinister of all, Dr. Mandias is downright dictatorial in his insistence on instilling “Christian” values on the curriculum.  Janet’s mentor, the world-weary Doris, risks losing her job because she refuses to teach Creationism alongside Darwin’s theory of Evolution.

 Downs has a gift for creating vivid, complex characters.  Even the “bad guys” come across as human, even Principal Pettlogg, who gradually grows disgusted by his own desires.  Only Dr. Mandias rings false, perhaps because his standard Bible-Belt menace adds nothing new to a long-familiar type.  It’s as if Boss Hogg wandered into a Shaw play—he’s a stock villain without the added complexity.

 Still, DEAD WHITE MALES offers a fascinating look into the problems in modern American schools, from overmedicated students (Janet casually observes that “most of them are on Ritalin”) to a curriculum formed in response to trends, not concrete needs (the schools’ textbooks change every few months, the curriculum changes with every new theory Master Teacher Burns and Dr. Mandias can cook up). 

 Director Brock H. Hill artfully balances the comic moments with the tragic, and seamlessly transitions from one scene to the next.  Set designer Virginia Monte helps make this possible with an ingenuous, flexible environment—a wall of blackboard that runs the entire length of the stage, and covered with drawings and quotes that echo the play’s key themes.  There’s a drawing of Darwin, an alphabet that starts out confidently than fades away, and in the midst of twenty repeated lines of “I will not move my seat during homeroom” is a desperate “I will not say anything original.”  Michael Piatkowski’s pitch-perfect costumes get the teachers’ dowdy formality just right—from Doris’ denim button-down dress paired with a lavender cardigan to Master Teacher Burns’ form-fitting jacket and pencil skirt in shades of brown thirty years out of date.

Justin Boykin ©2023  Jake Lipman and Brady Adair

 The ensemble is first-rate.  Jake Lipman brings a determined good will to Janet seasoned with a hint of ambition.  Shana Wiersum’s cynical Doris shows an unexpectedly passionate conviction in her ideals when challenged, especially in a harrowing showdown with Dr. Mandias.  Brynne Kraynak underscores the sunny veneer of art teacher Ms. Woods with ready cynicism, while Leanne Linsky displays fine comic timing as uptight Master Teacher Burns, particularly when she tries to rewrite the lyrics to her middle school’s misguided production of A Chorus Line.  Brady Adair balances the clownish aspects of Principal Pettlogg with the sinister; while Robert Gonzales Jr. is suitably threatening as Dr. Mandias.  Graciany Miranda shines in the brief, difficult role of Johnny, the lanky, awkward fifth grader who’s “big for his age.”

 Despite a few false notes, this is overall a fine production of a thought-provoking play—an education on the state of education.

Bridge Theater at Shetler : 244 West 54th Street, 12th Floor