PUPIL HAZE

All through Park Your Car in Harvard Yard, I kept wondering if the characters were ever going to stop whining. But these were whining kinds of people. They would whine about anything--the weather, childhood, tourists and every person in the past who could conceivably be blamed for their current state of whininess.

Park Your Car in Harvard Yard, staged by Actors Theatre of Phoenix, brings the artistry of complaint to a new low. A young woman moves in as housekeeper to her former teacher, now retired. She blames him for ruining her life by giving her a couple of flunking grades. The teacher isn't communicative until he gets really upset, at which point he hits the housekeeper. The housekeeper, for her part, is prone to fits of vengeance that border on mistreatment of the elderly. The material doesn't provide even a flimsy excuse for getting these two characters together in an evening of theatre.

Israel Horovitz, prolific American playwright and author of The Widow's Blind Date and The Indian Wants the Bronx, goes for the hothouse effect. The play uses one large set with a living room and dining room downstairs, and two bedrooms upstairs. With nowhere else to go, the characters enter television-sitcom land. We're treated to strings of gags involving ironing (always a funny topic), having a cold (another screamer), problems with the batteries on his hearing aid, her poor grammar and the war of the radio stations--he likes classical, she likes rock. When these jokes have been beaten to death, the two characters start in on what little substance the play possesses. When they're not baiting each other, they're whining.

With a venom that would be more appropriate for accusations of Nazi war crimes, the housekeeper reveals her past as his student, and those poor grades in music and English. She has become his housekeeper in order to see him die. Teachers, beware.®MDNM¯

I would have been more than willing to accept Park Your Car in Harvard Yard as a sort of Stephen King story, a dark tale of the mentally deranged seeking revenge on those who have wronged them. But when the play gives the housekeeper the higher moral ground--Horovitz implies we're supposed to feel sorry for the housekeeper's lack of academic success--I couldn't care. After the teacher has brutally slapped her and they've had a couple of exchanges of obscenities, he agrees to teach the classical music class again so she can get a passing grade. Guess what: She eschews rock for Mendelssohn, and both characters are redeemed. Go figure.

For each, this is just one more dysfunctional relationship in an apparent lifetime of dysfunctional relationships. Park Your Car in Harvard Yard has a lot in common with a previous production of Actors Theatre this season, Trappers, written by the company's managing director Jim Pinkerton. Both plays rest on the mistaken premise that characters' revealing emotional secrets makes riveting theatre.

Trappers, the story of four guys and a Jeep, had enough sense to confine its interminable chatter to one long act. But both plays are long on whining, and the characters use their complaints not as exposition to set the scene for further dramatic action, but as the point of the play itself.

Characters who end up whining are about as interesting as the old bore at the end of the bar nobody wants to sit near. In a play with no action, that's deadly. Neither Park Your Car in Harvard Yard nor Trappers convinced me it was theatre.

 
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