The Film Society, set in an English boys’ school in Durban, South Africa in 1970 during apartheid, is a fine and intelligent play highlighted, in its Keen Company production, by brilliant acting.

The characters form a close-knit group all intimately associated with Blenheim School.  We meet Jonathon, once a student there, now a teacher with a “film society” as his pet project, trying to watch a film — practically embracing his portable projector in the dark, while the school is roiled in turmoil.  The resident hot-head liberal, Jonathon’s friend and colleague Terry, put in charge of arranging a school celebration, brought in a Black minister to speak.  Now the minister has been arrested for appearing on stage, yes arrested.  And the school’s parents are up-in-arms at this “commie” breach of the walls of what they want to see as a conservative British bastion.

At first we think this will be about Good lined up on the side of handsome, boyish Terry who’s clearly on the side of history, the Blacks and new ideas, and Bad on the side of the stuffy, ailing Headmaster and what we assume is his rigid adherence to old ways and determination to fire Terry to appease the parents.   Jonathon, we suspect, like heroes in films, will break through his apparent timidity make a heroic choice for Good — early on that’s where I thought the play was headed.

But the play unrolls to reveal ethical ambiguity at every turn, starting with the tragic fate of the Black minister:  We realize that what Terry’s actually done is sacrifice the minister at the altar of his own idealistic purposes — and Terry should have known what would happen, he’s lived in Durban all his life.  The parents who send their boys to this school are up in arms over the scandal and breach of their reactionary values so that Headmaster Sutter is under pressure to fire Terry to protect the school that he’s built from nothing and that graduates, we’re told, some very good boys?  Would firing Terry be right or wrong?

And what of that lead-in about “heroic choice”?  Jonathon hurriedly separates himself from the controversy — he was only looking after the refreshments when the Minister spoke, he assures the Headmaster.   But, through the single-minded machinations of his protective mother, Jonathon is promoted and then, as he gains power, is forced into action.

The school’s infrastructure is crumbling just as the old teachers are declining into ill health and death.  Money is short.  To what extent does Jonathon have to placate the parents to stay in business?  Whom does he have to fire now?  Compromise is everywhere and decisions are equivocal.  It’s a very human story.

And everyone, from the gruffly intelligent Headmaster, to the overbearing aristocratic mother, to the liberal activist, is a full character.  Even the prejudiced, disciplinarian teacher, Hamish Fox. wins us over for a time with his passion for teaching clear and effective writing and speaking — no accident that he’s advocating that determining upper class skill, rhetoric.  Hamish is an extreme version of the kind of teacher about whom one says years later, “He was tough, but he taught me to write.”

Part of the richness of this play is that while focusing on individuals, it paints a picture of the violent context of social injustice pressing in on all sides. Within the play, we never actually leave the school, so this larger view of apartheid is created with considerable skill.  The focus on a few individuals in one confined place dramatizes the withering isolation of this enclave with its values from a vanished past.

Euan Morton turns in a profound performance as the evasive, weak seeming but fundamentally ambitious Jonathon:  it’s all there in every nuance of his voice, expression, and movement.  It’s a prize winning performance — you can’t see better acting.

Roberta Maxwell as the rich, scheming, domineering mother is arresting — it’s hard to take ones eyes off her when she’s on stage.  Gerry Bamman goes well beyond a “tough Headmaster” type to convey Sutter’s realistic, even flexible reckoning in his determination to maintain his creation, Blenheim School, even as he is going blind, physically and I suppose symbolically.  As Hamish Fox, Richmond Hoxie is persuasive in his rear view vision, violent prejudice and belief in the importance of teaching:  he manages to make his character one can love to hate and yet feel that something significant will be lost without him.

The Film Society is a fully satisfying theater experience.

The Film Society  plays at the Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row on Manhattan’s midtown West side through October 26, 2013.

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