Stories about the ill-fated advances of lecherous college professors are probably as old as the academy itself. Lisa Lewis’ Schooled may not stray too far from the familiar, but her keen observations on ambition and a knack for sharp dialogue, with the help of a strong cast, make the expected feel satisfying, if not entirely fresh.
While sex must never be too far from the mind of Andrew (Quentin Maré), the unhappily married New York City screenwriting professor who opens the play, the more overwhelming yearning here is for success. Andrew’s student Claire (Lilli Stein) seems on the timid side — her privileged boyfriend Jake (Stephen Friedrich) is more obviously ravenous for fame — but she shows early on that she’s got a comparable appetite. All three are after something, and when their desires bump up against one another, the sparks make for a surprisingly powerful blaze.
Both Claire and Jake look to Andrew for advice, and he’s just the sort of grizzled showbiz veteran who doesn’t need much convincing to dispense it. But he’s especially eager, it seems, to help Claire out, and over drinks and darts at a West Village watering hole, they have the sort of late night conversations about artistic integrity, craft and commercialism that could make any undergraduate’s heart flutter with the utter seriousness of it all.
“You know who makes art, retarded people. Really. It’s called outsider art. People who have extreme mental disabilities, they draw because they can’t help themselves. Everything else is about fame, getting paid and getting laid,” Andrew says in between swigs of beer.
Andrew’s got a bunch of those, jaded pithy lines — Lewis must have heard more than a few in writing workshops as a student in NYU Tisch’s Dramatic Writing Program — and Maré delivers them with a perfect mix of bravado and self-loathing. He’s got the dad rocker look down too, with swept back salt and pepper hair, cuffed jeans, and the swagger of age and experience to go with it.
Not that it’s doing much for Claire. She likes Andrew’s company and his wisdom, but she clearly doesn’t have the sort of ideas he does about their relationship, and though she’s not exactly conniving, she seems comfortable enough stringing Andrew along as she gets closer to achieving her professional goals. Their chemistry, meanwhile, is believable and gross in a way that’s still charged; a woman sitting behind me audibly emitted a ‘Yuck’ when the pair first nearly locked lips.
Indeed, Andrew does ultimately come off as a creep in these scenes, but Schooled succeeds because neither he nor Lewis’ other characters are easily pigeonholed. Andrew is a skeeze but at times sympathetic, Jake is a jerk but not uncaring, Claire is gullible but not entirely naive. They are, in other words, human.
Their fates never veer toward the tragic, and that’s for the best. Instead of turning into a morality tale about sexual taboos, Lewis gives us the freedom to focus on more interesting ideas about power and privilege. In the end, Schooled feels more like a conversation than a lecture.