A school teetering on the brink in ‘Greater Good’
Kirsten Greenidge pulls out all the stops in “Greater Good,’’ among the most ambitious of her plays in terms of structural complexity.
It’s not her best — that distinction still belongs to the Huntington Theatre Company’s 2012 production of “The Luck of the Irish’’ — and, clocking in at nearly three intermissionless hours, “Greater Good’’ is in need of tightening. Ingenious though its structure is, the play’s mechanics sometimes get in the way of its story.
But as always with this probing playwright, it’s a story that matters, making her new drama an experience worth having and a challenge worth taking. What unspools in “Greater Good’’ is an absorbing cautionary tale about the ways the best interests of students — the greater good — can fall victim to the machinations and infighting of those who should have those interests at heart, but don’t.
In our perilous current national moment, Greenidge’s play also carries a broader message about the vitality and vulnerability of our political system and the forces working against democracy itself, creating a need to, as dramaturg Ilana M. Brownstein writes in a program note, “nurture it, and feed it.’’
We don’t see the students in the play’s fictional Gleason Street School, an alternative private school near Boston that ranges from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade. Instead, the focus in the opening scene is on a fractious and scattershot meeting of the school’s parents’ council. It’s a deftly funny scene, proving that parody is among Greenidge’s manifold gifts. (She then goes on to juggle multiple other tones and styles, including a surrealistic interlude, in the rest of “Greater Good.’’)
As they anxiously discuss Gleason Street’s precarious finances and fret about whether the school is fulfilling its mission, the parents are at cross-purposes. Personal tensions flare up, or they get mired in opaque issues of procedure and terminology. A mysterious figure named Ann keeps being evoked, after which the table falls silent. One parent says ominously that there is “no money coming in after what Ann did.’’ What Ann did isn’t revealed until near the end of the play, but by then the culprits of what amounts to generational betrayal have become quite clear in “Greater Good.’’ Maybe they include Ann, and maybe they don’t.
“Greater Good’’ was developed and workshopped at Company One Theatre, where Greenidge is artist in residence, and which is now presenting the play’s world premiere in collaboration with the American Repertory Theater. An exemplary cast is directed by Steven Bogart, whose previous work at Company One includes memorable productions of “Peerless,’’ “Dry Land,’’ and “Shockheaded Peter.’’ Bogart makes shrewd use of the Commonwealth School in the Back Bay, where “Greater Good’’ is being staged. That site-specific approach lends an atmospheric texture of authenticity as, from scene to scene, the audience moves through classrooms, offices, and stairwells while the play takes them on a nonlinear, time-shifting journey through Gleason Street’s fight for its life. (Once they arrive at each room, the audience is usually seated.)
It’s not a spoiler to say that the play does not leave the outcome of that fight in doubt: Broken into several different groups, the audience is essentially cast in the role of potential buyers of the property that was once the school, led around the building by actors portraying real estate agents (my group was led by Eli Troen). In one room, books and other detritus are heaped in a fireplace (the set is by Cristina Todesco), a testament to failure. So what we witness in “Greater Good’’ is the anatomy of the rivalries, alliances, hidden agendas, and shortsightedness that led to that failure — along with a heartening suggestion that it will not be the final chapter.
As is often the case with Greenidge’s plays, questions of class, race, and gender, spoken and not, are woven through “Greater Good,’’ enlarging the stakes beyond the immediate circumstances. Val (Christine Power), who is white, treats other members of the council in a peremptory manner, as if she outranks them. Gordon (Brooks Reeves), the feckless leader of the school, who is also white, responds to the council’s concerns with nostalgic anecdotes or non sequiturs. Four members of the parents’ council are people of color: newcomer Christine (Rachel Cognata, in a sensitive portrayal that adds to her impressive recent track record of performances on local stages), Michael (Dominic Carter), Kim (Blyss Cleveland), and Adams (Shahjehan Khan). The other council member is Fern, who is white and portrayed by Becca A. Lewis with a tremulous air that bespeaks the insecurity of a woman who lacks the economic means of other parents.
Few writers have a better ear than Greenidge does for the subtle and not-so-subtle manifestations of status competition, Boston-style. Even the matter of where you spend your summer vacations is part of that competition in “Greater Good.’’ Within the first two minutes of the play, Val finds a way to tell Christine that her son goes to Brown, before grandly allowing: “Well, not everybody’s cut out for Harvard.’’ For good measure, Val then notes that her other son “plays the harp and does water polo’’ so he has a “much better chance.’’
Notably, it is a pair of teachers in their mid-20s who seem to have the firmest handle on the school’s mission: Kyle (Dev Blair), who is transgender and has to battle for the pay raise some colleagues have already received, and Isa (Raijene Murchison), whose idealism still burns bright. It is Isa who articulates the argument for Gleason Street and for education itself, that precious commodity: “We sell the future. No one wants to foreclose on the future.’’ Here’s hoping she’s right.
Play by Kirsten Greenidge. Directed by Steven Bogart. Dramaturgy by Ilana M. Brownstein. Presented by Company One Theatre in collaboration with American Repertory Theater. At Commonwealth School, Boston, through Aug. 17. Tickets $25-$45, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org