As a teacher myself (what, you think I write for Daily Actor all day?) I understand the difficult in getting the attention of those students who use your class for doing their homework for other classes or, even worse, sleeping. The premise behind The Thirteenth Commandment, a long-gestating play written by Joshua H. Cohen which is being performed for the first time by the Libra Theater Company at the Bridge Theater in New York, is that it is set in the aftermath of a teacher’s attempt to provoke his 11th grade students into questioning universally accepted truths by suggesting that the Holocaust might not have happened as it is recorded in their textbook.
The ultimate aim of the teacher, Jason Efheim (Pete McElligot), is to have his students question the status quo of their working class ski town, hoping they will not follow in their parents’ footsteps of “pouring the coffee, plowing the snow, building the vacation homes” for tourists. Naturally the community doesn’t see it that way, nor does Principal Pam McGarry (Jennifer Door White), who doesn’t know how to handle the controversy, or Natalie Levine (Nora Hummel), Jason’s loudmouth, deeply offended Jewish officemate. Likewise, Cory (Lauren Pennline), the resident student activist is infuriated (though she later weighs Jason’s words against her sincere belief in freedom of speech), and Jason’s very pregnant wife, Beth (Glenna Grant), who teaches algebra at the school, has her own questions about her husband’s aims as well as her personal status quo she has settled for. Jason’s hopes on improving the lives of his students are centered on the impressionable and awkward Tom (Justin Danforth) whose father, Phil (Joe Fellman), is the embodiment of the town’s working class cycle as the school’s janitor. Curiously enough, we never find out exactly what Jason said to his class because he partakes in some revisionist history of his own.
The character of Jason is a complex one — in the beginning of the play he is confident that the controversy over his “experiment” (as he refers to it) will blow over quickly — and he even admits that he likes the attention. He’s hard-headed enough to see his stand as one of integrity against his town’s working class mediocrity future for his students. McElligot demonstrates Jason’s bravado in much of the play through his body language, and is equally adept when that confidence eventually fades when McElligot’s character realizes that he is in deeper than he initially thought. Hummel is equally commanding as Natalie, his foil, who seems more offended by her belief that Jason did the lesson in order to grandstand than because of her heritage. Levine is the most rotten character in the play, but it takes impressive effort on Hummel’s part in order for her performance to be so unlikable, yet like Jason, Levine has deeper emotions that Hummel effectively conveys. Likewise, the confused nature of Tom’s character might make some think Danforth doesn’t have a handle on his character, but anyone who understands acting knows how difficult it can be to play an awkward teenager without being silly or a caricature. Nonetheless, without mentioning them all individually I have nothing but praise for each actor in the play because this is very much a group effort — each part is significant.
I’d be surprised if I don’t hear more about The Thirteenth Commandment soon. Cohen’s play is so relevant to issues in education and the “shaming” that comes along with questioning the majority’s point of view on any issue. From those who claim anyone who questions global warming is a moron, to those who think anyone who disagrees President Obama’s policies is a racist, to those who declare anyone who questions the military budget of being “against the troops,” all sides of the political spectrum make a habit of trying to stifle opposing viewpoints by shouting louder. He owes a lot of thanks to director Tom Costello for staging his excellent material so well with this excellent cast.
Though the collaborative nature of theater means it’s sometimes difficult to say what crew members do what behind the scenes, I have to give special credit to scenic designer Andy Yanni and costume designer Travis Alexandra Boatright. Not only does the set look like every teacher’s office I’ve ever been in (including my own) down to the stacks of books on the bookshelf that are more likely there to showoff than for actual use, but each character is dressed in a way that clearly defines his or her personality. In particular, I got a laugh out of the “I’m not a teacher but an awakener” and “Keep calm and teach social studies” signs in the office, which are the type of cheesy teacher signage and totally informs the attitudes of the characters of the play. These details are essential, and it’s proof that Libra Theater Company was willing to go for extra yards despite the limited space offered by the Bridge Theatre.
The Thirteen Commandment runs at The Bridge Theatre (244 West 54th Street, New York) through May 5. Performances run Wednesdays through Sundays. Check out http://www.libratheater.org for more information.