What could possibly be worse than inviting an African-American to speak at the 100th Anniversary of a buttoned-up private school? Apparently little else for the parents and faculty of the Blenheim School for Boys. Sure, the place is in shambles and the powers that be are physically failing -but that is of minor interest compared to the greater issue of steadfast tradition through monetary manipulation and nepotism. Of course, that was 1970 apartheid in Durban, South Africa, the setting for Keen Company’s revival of Jon Robin Baitz’s “The Film Society”.
The instigator behind the speaker’s invitation is Terry Sinclair (David Barlow), a radical progressive and child hood friend of Jonathon Balton (Euan Morton) , a fellow teaching colleague at the school is who is primed to become headmaster. Jonathon is faced with more dilemmas than Mother Theresa in a Vegas Casino: Does he side with his long time friend’s liberalism and buck the establishment? Or does he warm up to his icy mother, whose traditional ways and large donations could make or break Blenheim? Can he continue to keep his film society alive in spite of the controversy it causes? Will his future at the school mean uncomfortable decisions?
All of this sounds like it would make for a compelling drama and mostly, it does. Baitz’s usual outstanding use poetic language is undeniably displayed. His characters are fleshed out and layered. Conflict is certainly present . All of the ingredients are intact. Yet watching “The Film Society” is at times, work. The didactic tone frequently clobbers its’ audience and while it does have some vital themes, it could be improved with less “on the nose” commentary.
In the second act, headmaster Neville Sutter (played with a perfect dose of stoic stodginess by Gerry Bamman) awakens to the harsh reality that changes must take place at Bleinheim. He remarks, “Isn’t it always a matter of politics?” The ethics and moral compass have been compromised. How fitting an observation in the midst of our current political landscape in Washington, D.C. -surely a case of art reflecting life.
“The Film Society” has a near flawless ensemble. Euan Morton’s Jonathon is winning and hugely likable (at least from the onset). Balton’s rabble rousing friend Terry Sinclair is sensitively portrayed with honesty and warmth. Actors Gerry Bamman and Richmond Hoxie provide notes of curmudgeonly goodness as the school administrators, and long time stage veteran Roberta Maxwell gives us rigid aristocracy in her character, Mrs. Balton, that makes Norma Desmond seem like a good time gal. Unfortunately, Mandy Siegfried (Nan Sinclair) cannot hold a candle to her fellow seasoned actors and delivers a junior high school drama club performance.
While it is not the most riveting piece of theater on the boards right now, it does offer some high quality performances that are well worth watching.