Teachers doing drugs (and other things) with students, students discussing physical mutilation with teachers, religious riots in the auditorium—did any of this happen at your high school? If you are less than five years out of high school, expect middle-aged patrons of The Faculty Room to look at you as if your generation is responsible for the degenerate behavior portrayed and discussed onstage at Woolly Mammoth’s latest show.
The first sound of The Faculty Room is perfectly chosen; the banging of lockers in an echoey hall takes one back to high school as nothing else can. Unfortunately, the next two hours are so unbelievable, so entirely unlike high school, that that first bloom of verisimilitude is utterly shattered. Author Bridget Carpenter seems to have taken every scary incident to occur in a high school in the last 25 years and lumped them all together in one school, often to the point of ridiculousness. A teacher collecting three .45s at “morning checkpoint” might make sense in South Central, but not in a high school that, we are constantly reminded, is in the middle of nowhere.
Carpenter utterly ignores the realities of restrictions on teachers, acting as if a teacher having a public affair or taking E with a student would be ignored or condoned in a modern school. We are left with an obtuse message about the validity of the rapture, and perhaps an hysteria about education in America.
The absurdity of the script is only embellished by the performances, which are uniformly subpar. Ethan T. Bowen, as English teacher Adam Younger, gives an excellent performance when his character is supposed to be drunk, stoned, or on E. Unfortunately, he still seems drunk when his consciousness is supposedly unaltered. This is all augmented by a walk blatantly lifted from Groucho Marx.
Megan Anderson, who plays Theater and Speech teacher Zoe, has at once the least believably written character and the most irritating acting style. Each painfully exaggerated word is accompanied by a gesture, reminding one of a cheerleader in a high school musical. Michael Russotto, as Carver Durand, a World History teacher with a past, at first appears to be the rock of normalcy—but no, he is as manic as the rest. If we were somehow informed that each of the protagonists had ingested a large number of illegal substances prior to each entrance, these characterizations might make sense, but no such assurance is made.
Woolly Mammoth’s usual excellence characterizes the design team, whose attention to detail is refreshing and funny. Robin Stapley’s unbearably and appropriately cluttered set piles the detritus of a high school year, with a plush mascot costume stacked next to old trophies and a diagram of the brain. The myriad bulletin boards are overflowing with memos and signs, including a giant homemade warning that screams “No X-Actos!” Melanie Clark’s costume design only falters when it comes to Zoe’s costumes, which are at once too expensive-looking and too strangely gothic to belong to a teacher—even a theater teacher. Props, by Jennifer Sheetz, assert themselves in small and sparkling ways: Zoe lights her first cigarette with a hot pink lighter; two sock puppets have different faces.
Woolly Mammoth rarely presents such less-than-sterling work. Perhaps their fatal error was choosing a subject that neither playwright, director, nor actors understood. High school is hardly a hotbed of tabloid iniquity waiting to be laid bare, but Carpenter et al have used it as the backdrop to and cause of some of the most repulsive and absurd events imaginable.