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'First Day of School' Misses the Mark

Consider a short-answer test, from which students must choose one of several questions to answer. Now imagine a student picks the question that he finds most appealing but is least prepared to answer, yet still persists in its execution. This hypothetical situation does not presage a P-Set full of word problems. Instead, it describes “First Day of School,” a floundering production which ran Feb. 19-20 at Arts @ 29 Garden.

The play, written by Billy Aronson of “Rent” and “Beavis and Butthead” fame and directed by Julia E. Belanoff ’18, tracks several parents as they while away a rare free day, having dropped their kids off on the first day of school and finding themselves aimless and without commitments. Belanoff, who has shown her talent as an actress in previous Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club productions, wrote in her director’s note that she fell in love with the play after seeing a San Francisco Playhouse production performed by her favorite actors and that it raises questions such as, “How can intellectual, passionate, and overcommitted individuals meet their most basic needs while living high intensity lives?” While this question—a herculean one—ostensibly applies to undergraduates, the play itself struggled to address it.

“We have this one chance to do something special,” Susan (Liz Kantor ’18) says to her husband, David (Ben G. Cort ’18, a Fifteen Minutes Magazine executive), nailing the tempo of her line but lacking the gravity of a frustrated parent. Indeed, all of the actors, failing to inhabit their roles, struggled to move the production from sheer line delivery to the hilarious farce that the play potentially could have become. Although Cort has impeccable comedic timing throughout the performance, lines like “Hey, do you want to look at dryers?” bring no understated middle-aged wryness to the table. Lacking credibility, “First Day of School” failed before it could write its name at the top of the proverbial exam.

What followed was a going-through-the-motions enactment of Susan’s suggestion that she and David “should try having sex with other people” during the unaccounted-for hours. This line, on which the ensuing action depends, failed to pack a punch or to prompt its intended take-a-step-back moment. And when Susan and David ultimately manage to corner fellow parents Peter (Patric C.W. Verrone ’18, a Crimson Arts columnist), Kim (Ali Astin ’19), and Alice (Sara Bobok ’19) in their home for some grown-up fun, the actors, though they have been directed to have the shrugs, fidgets, and fast-talking patter of tightly-wound, neurotic parents, are still not believable. When Peter asks Susan, “Why can’t I just stick my head in your hair and just sniff it?” as he considers her uninhibited proposition for sex without consequences, he is so manic that he comes across as simply anal-retentive, more a crazy teen than a father who flipped his lid. Perhaps Belanoff chose to so characterize Peter, but these choices proved awkward; they did not suit the crumpled-but-suave man looking to move beyond a broken marriage, stressful job, and children in their terrible twos.

The Arts @ 29 Garden space, infrequently used by HRDC productions, also had foreseeable problems. For instance, many of the one-on-one exchanges between Susan or David and the parent each one was trying to seduce took place in a nook, angled awkwardly from the central staging area. The transitions between that nook and the sparsely-decorated central living room felt rushed and sporadic. One scene—where Cort and Astin successfully tackled physical comedy, though perhaps not with the intended undertones—made use of a balcony area, but the aim of the staging decisions seemed to be simply to use as many cool spaces as possible.

While there is no retest for this production, on the bright side, the “First Day of School” comes around every year. Next time, the cast can try again, now maybe knowing which questions to answer.

—Staff writer Melissa C. Rodman can be reached at melissa.rodman@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @melissa_rodman.

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