The first voice we hear in Zeitgeist Stage Company’s production of “Exit Strategy’’ is that of brand-new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, holding forth at her confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill. DeVos, of course, has given critics ample grounds to question her commitment to public schools.
Thus does director David J. Miller shrewdly underscore the precarious position of public education and put a larger frame around the central conflict of “Exit Strategy’’: a last-ditch attempt by teachers and students to save their struggling Chicago high school, which the city has decided to close.
Alas, the inherent drama of that battle is only intermittently realized in Ike Holter’s ambitious and impassioned but disjointed drama.
The playwright demonstrates an undeniable gift for incisive characterization and punchy dialogue, and he has certainly put his finger on an urgent issue. “Exit Strategy’’ premiered in Chicago in 2014, not long after the administration of Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed nearly 50 schools, many in Latino or African-American neighborhoods. (The play was presented off-Broadway last year.)
But Holter spends too much time letting us get to know his cast of characters before meaningful sparks start to fly and the stakes of their long-shot fight to spare their school from the bulldozers start to come into focus. That problem is compounded by the fact that the most interesting of those characters by far — Pam, a fiercely uncompromising English teacher portrayed by Zeitgeist stalwart Maureen Adduci (“The Normal Heart’’) — is offstage for much of the play, though she is invoked by others as a spur to conscience.
The visible figure of authority in “Exit Strategy’’ is Ricky, the school’s young assistant principal, portrayed by Matthew Fagerberg. Even granting that Ricky is supposed to be wishy-washy at first, Fagerberg's performance is too tentative. He’s considerably better when Ricky changes from bland bureaucrat to firebrand protest leader, but that metamorphosis feels abrupt and somewhat arbitrary.
There’s only one student character in “Exit Strategy,’’ and he’s too long in arriving onstage, but once he does show up he’s a vivid presence: Donnie, forcefully portrayed by Jalani Dottin-Coye. At first, the enterprising Donnie faces suspension because, intent on raising money for school supplies, he hacked the school’s website so that visitors to the site find themselves on Indiegogo, the crowd-funding site.
But Donnie challenges Ricky (“Your job is to protect this place. You have failed,’’ the youth tells the administrator), and it is Donnie who ultimately taps into Ricky's long-dormant idealism and fighting spirit. Ricky names Donnie his “creative associate,’’ specializing in social media, as the administrator launches “Team Winning,’’ designed to attract media attention and win public backing for the school, thereby pressuring the city to keep it open. (Despite their alliance, Donnie hurls a homophobic slur at Ricky near the end of the play. It comes out of nowhere, and it’s a puzzling and queasy-making moment.)
When Ricky turns into a rebel-with-a-cause, he has to rally the teachers, which is far from a slam-dunk. Those gathered in the teachers’ lounge include Jania (Victoria George), scarred by her previous experience with school closure; Luce (Johnny Luis Quinones), who is secretly involved with Ricky; Sadie (Lillian Gomes), who brings rat poison to school, taking the institution’s rodent-control problem into her own hands; and Arnold (Robert Bonotto), the grouchy elder of the group, actively considering a sabotage effort against the planned protest.
“Exit Strategy’’ would be stronger if its lens widened out beyond that lounge to encompass, say, a city official, so the threat would seem less abstract, or a parent from the school community, so the impact on the neighborhood would be more palpable, rather than focus so closely on teachers. That said, their dedication to their students does come through, albeit in different ways, to different degrees.
Jania best distills the challenge facing the school’s 3,000 pupils, who have to walk by gang members on their way into a leaky building with broken toilets, peeling paint, and only 20 computers. In the process, she also articulates the reason to fight for them. “And they are special. They are great,” Jania says. “But they are not going to be fine. Fine is for white kids and North Side kids and all the other kids who aren’t our kids. Our kids have to work and work three times as hard or else nobody’s gonna think twice, end of story, close the book.’’
Play by Ike Holter. Directed by David J. Miller. Presented by Zeitgeist Stage Company. At Plaza Theater, Boston Center for the Arts, through March 11. Tickets: $25-$30, 617-933-8600, www.zeitgeiststage.comDon Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.