… twilight of the Great Books …

Office Hours is a tender and passionate love story about — the love Humanities professors hold for the great books of the western tradition just when the core focus (aka “privileging”) of these books is on the way out.  It’s also a fine comedy.

We’re in the late 1960’s, and in a flexible, amusing setting of young professors’ offices.  The profs are all teaching sections of the required two-semester Western Tradition core course but they’re worried.  Rumor has it that this course is to be eliminated.  No more core.  Good-bye dead white males.  The young teachers, concerned individually about their futures, share an overriding concern: for Homer, Aeschylus, Virgil, Dante and Shakespeare.

Over a passage of time that’s, very cleverly, both the course of a day and two semesters, the profs interact with each other and with the students who drop in, during and outside of office hours.  We see the full parade of views about “the classics,” from love and appreciation of the great writers through to “politically correct” antagonisms — sometimes sincere, sometimes manipulated to pass a course;  in this we get a portrait of an age.

The first moon landing and the Vietnam War, introduced as radio background, broaden the scope, reminding us how much the times are a-changing.  Then the War arrives center stage in the person of an anguished and threatening Vietnam vet who has held in his heart, like a flower in the darkness, the memory of a positive comment a professor had once made in the margin of a paper he’d written in college, his one “straight A.”

Part of the pleasure of Office Hours is that the students and professors , while acutely observed and amusing as types, are also fully rounded and varied individuals.  This so-satisfying, witty comedy — comedy with an elegiac ending that brought tears to my eyes — is knowingly staged and directed by Jim Simpson and played by the Flea’s young acting company, The Bats.  The Dante cast rotates with the Homer cast — the Dantes played when I was there, and Bjorn Dupaty, Wilton Yeung, Maren Langdon, Holly Chou, Betsy Lippitt and Raul Sigmund Julia were all perfect in their multiple roles, all of them as both professors and students with diverse personalities.

Office Hours is a remarkably full portrait of a key period in American history and the changes it brought, and it’s specific and touchingly human.  Lofty visions intermingle with sensitively conveyed foibles, failing and just plain individuality.  It’s non-stop enjoyable.

Office Hours plays at the Flea Theater in NYC’s Tribeca through November 7th.

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