Playwright: Jeffrey Sweet. At: Victory Gardens Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln
Telephone: 773-871-3000; $20-$48. Runs through: April 26
At the onset of Class Dismissed, the cast comes bouncing on stage while '60s folk music plays in the background. They stretch and smile and embrace and strain mightily to emit groovy vibes before introducing themselves with a forced folksiness that's one step removed from a kumbaya sing-a-long. It's all fine and good, if you're in the mood to embrace hippie-dippie clichés. But if you're in the mood for complex, thoughtfully written characters, a dramatic arc that pulls you in and an intelligent, provocative story that leaves you thinking, you best skip Jeffrey Sweet's Class.
This is the 1960s as filtered through the sensibility of the Brady Bunch although to be sure, the Bradys actually had better storylines. And can someone—anyone?—explain why giant steel wool pads are woven through the tree branches in the depressingly expensive set that adorns this non-starter? It looks like some sort of spirit in the sky is preparing to scrub pots.
Class Dismissed reveals its shaky foundations immediately as Jackson, a professor, introduces himself by describing a class wherein he jumped out the window. There's no context, no rhyme and no reason for the leap other than to show the audience that Jackson cares not for pleasing the Man and has the wild-child, spirit-of-the-'60s cojones needed to stray from a syllabus that apparently requires professors remain with their students while teaching.
Why stepping five feet down from windowsill to campus ground should count as an act of profound rebellion I'm sure I don't know. But Jackson implies that it is, and thus we know he's an anti-authoritarian and also as hip as his long-haired pupils.
After Jackson's fourth-wall-breaking introduction, the others take their turn—each character addressing the audience with a casual, we're-all-pals-here friendliness that hasn't been earned. The effect is that of being shanghaied by a group therapy session of compulsive huggers.
In addition to Jackson we meet Meg, whose defining characteristic is an arch, sarcastic tone that's maintained through every word of every sentence she utters. There's also Pete, a hangdog stoner who confuses spinelessness being easy-going, and Roy, a rich kid who plays poor in college so as to ... well, what exactly is never clear. Finally, there's Wendy the Waitress, who serves fries, disappears and then returns a few scenes later to explain that she's an important part of the story, so please don't forget about her. Class Dismissed is littered with such cloying, direct-address asides. The worst one comes when Lisa, a teenager, walks on stage ( in a sassy side-pony tail, ostensibly to let us know she's a child of the '80s ) , points to the baby Meg is holding, stage whispers, "That's me!" and exits giggling. My. Sweet. Lord.
Sweet follows this group through the 1980s, from college to commune to marriage and entrepreneurship. Toward the end Lisa wonders about the circumstances of her conception, the professor leaps into what feels like another play entirely with the introduction of a ( never developed and out-of-left field ) subplot involving an undocumented worker, and Roy loses his hair but learns to embrace his wealth. There's a lot of talk about "projects"—the professor spends most of the play working on an "economic history" of something or other—but none of it pans out into anything worth caring about.
Director Dennis Zacek has a cast of Chicago's finest—all of whom are stuck in characters no deeper than the shallow end of a wading pool and prone to spouting eye-rolling dialogue along the lines of "Sexual possessiveness is part of the bourgeoisie orthodoxy!" History is reduced to winking asides ( "Nixon, for godssakes!" "And then Chicago happened!" ) , which add nothing to the story and, in fact, cheapen its context by their reductiveness.
When you consider the resources that went into producing "Class Dismissed," the piece becomes maddening rather than just annoying. An A-level cast—not to mention a set-budget that allows for so much steel wool—is a terrible thing to waste.