Common Knowledge By P.J. Kenney Directed by John Wauk At the Agassiz through October 22
"WELCOME TO N.E.P," reads a dimly scrawled sign on a grim black board as if an acronym alone is a raison d'etre for a new campus political group whose issues have been finely horrid to include the environment nuclear freeze Central America and whales. Soon students trickle in for the group's inaugural meeting each for a different reason, P.J. Kenney's Common Knowledge uses this fictitious organization to effectively examine why students are drawn to campus political groups a 1980's response to the lore of campus activism in the 1960s.
We don't find out that N.E.P. stands for New Earth Protest until well into the first act; the issues are a given which group members never discuss. But this "generic labeling" leaves the scope of the play free to focus on the characters and what draws them to what they imagine to be the basement barracks of revolution. Thus the development of the fledgling organization is a frame in which to view the development of the characters. While they are well acted in some cases it is difficult for them to break away from the stereotype of the radical chic and revolutionary thug the empty leader and blind follower stereotypes which draw laughs in the first act, but which are not given time to develop because of the play's some what rapid denouement.
When the first scene opens the group's leaders Steve (Carlos LaPuerta) and Zola (Nicole Galland) are fitfully glancing at their watches wondering if anyone will show up at their inaugural meeting of N.E.P. Character introductions are natural as the new members file into the room in ones and twos. Group encounter style they introduce themselves giving the audience a chance to size them up.
Much of the humor in the first act derives from the audience's initial reaction to the stereotypes the characters present. There's the gung ho Zola sporting a fatigue jacket with more buttons with slogans on it than a campus kiosk. There's the mercenary Kevin (Brad Dalton) able to wield statistics better than a Gallup pollster for whom efficiency is more important than substance. The incongruity of pink and green Joan (Fori Daniel) is good for a few laughs when she walks onto the room boyfriend (Eliot Meyers) in tow. She reminds us of our own foibles when she apologizes for begin late. ("We went out for ice cream and we sort of lost track of time.")
The freshness yet familiarity of the characters as they originally react to each other for the first time maintains the first act. This carries over into the second act when Kenney develops the characters by one on one confrontations such as Joan's fight with her boyfriend and her encounter with Rufus (Michael Hasselmo) the long hairdo 60s leftover.
It is easier for the audience to read the first and second acts as a light hearted attempt to poke fun at campus stereotypes rather than as a statement about their motives. But this lighthearted tone strikes a sour note at the end of the second act with the tragedy of Joan for which the audience is unprepared.
The play aspires to a level beyond a humorous examination of stereotypes but it does not have much time to adjust to the rapid turn of events. This third act is hurried with too many changes of scene and characters to effectively explore the reactions of anyone. While this collapse echoes the disintegration of the N.E.P., the end of the play fails to balance and counteract the lightheartedness of the first two acts.
Another problem with the third act is that it attempts to develop themes not established in the first act. For example, when Steve and Scott realize the emptiness of their cause: "All we had were symbols with no reason why they should mean any more to us than to the other side... "This statement would have been more powerful had there been more evidence that the group was leaning on symbols in the first two acts.
But strong acting performances make for a lively and delightful first half and these performances are consistent even as the play itself spins towards its rapid denouement. LaPuerta and Dalton develop successfully their characters as foils for each other while Gallard and Kresty Abnastasio as another group member turn in strong performances each showing a new softness and sensitivity after the tragedy to Joan.
Despite imbalance in the structure, Common Knowledge is a clever representation of campus life. It is sure to appeal to a student audience which is able to laugh at itself and at it friends. But an exlusive theme hovers over the stage a theme that is hard to put down on paper and into the mouths of the characters. Politics is much more than burning down buildings, candlelight marches and a platform of lofty ideals. It is accommodating ideals to reality by communicating them to colleagues and to voters something which the beleaguer Steve is unable to do. It is the common knowledge which we, like Steve and his friends stumble over without finding.