SEX! SEX! SEX!
OK, now that I’ve got your attention, let’s talk about English.
That’s Maria Gobetti’s message in playwright Lissa Levin’s “Sex and Education,” now having its West Coast premiere at the Victory Theatre Center.
Gobetti plays Ms. Edwards, a once-enthusiastic English teacher who is leaving the profession after 36 years, totally disillusioned by what she sees as the futility of trying to teach students who are not interested, not engaged, and not responsive.
On the day of her final final exam she intercepts a note that the high school’s basketball star, Joe, (Kanin Guntzelman) has written to his cheerleader girlfriend (Jessica McKee). It’s a crudely written note full of trash talk. And, as she labels it, “profanity in bulk.” It also contains a clumsy plea for sex from his girlfriend, who has been putting him off by protesting that she’s “not ready.”
Ms. Edwards, who by this time feels she has nothing to lose, decides to keep him after school to see if she can make a dent in his indifference to language and grammar. And from here on, it is less a play than a well-constructed English lesson. Overly wordy, consistently witty, and only occasionally tedious.
The grammatical points are intricate, sometimes convoluted, but always well made, even though there are too many of them. And the arguments about what it means to be an educated person are thought-provoking and bordering on profound. As, for example, when Joe, angered by Ms. Edwards’ disparagement, launches a full-scale explanation of the intricacies of basketball, delivered with brilliance, passion, and perfect grammar.
Ms. Edwards holds him in thrall by threatening to fail him, which would mean that he would forfeit his basketball scholarship to college. Initially hostile and arrogant, Joe gradually comes to understand that she is serious and begins to acquiesce to her demands. She wants him to rethink his message and reframe it in a way that would be irresistibly persuasive to his girlfriend.
Meanwhile, the girlfriend (she doesn’t have a name, she is just called “the cheerleader”) bounces in and out, emphasizing each grammatical point with a rousing cheer, a flash of pompoms, and an exuberant smile. McKee is adorable; she brightens the room every time she enters it.
Guntzelman, too, is wonderful. Earnest, frustrated, and eventually triumphant, he is spot-on and delightful to watch. As an actor, he trained at the New York Film Academy and has specialized in comedy and improv, but probably his major achievement is having playwright Levin and Dan Guntzelman, director of this production, for his parents.
As for the third member of this ensemble, Maria Gobetti, she is the consummate actress, bringing rigid discipline, humor, and pathos to this key role. As Ms. Edwards she is every student’s nightmare — and eventual guru.
“Sex and Education” will continue its run at the Victory Theatre Center, 3326 West Victory Blvd. in Burbank, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. through July 10t. Call (818) 841-5421 for reservations.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.