By Christopher Caggiano
Greater Good is a fiercely compelling piece, confronting its audience with a complex exploration of some of the most pressing issues of our day.
Greater Good by Kirsten Greenidge. Directed by Steven Bogart.Produced by Company One Theatre in collaboration with the A.R.T at the Commonwealth School, 151 Commonwealth Ave, Boston, MA, through August 17
Company One’s production of Kirsten Greenidge bold new play, Greater Good, takes its audience members on a tour through the tony Commonwealth School in Boston’s Back Bay, up and down the wide staircases of one of the most exclusive private schools in the northeast. In the process, viewers are guided through a challenging dramatic experience: a struggling private school becomes a metaphor for income inequality, with particular attention paid to the roiling tensions just beneath the surface as we navigate the social and political minefield of just who should pay for what.
I am not normally a fan of immersive theater. I remember with chagrin the chore of climbing up and down five flights of stairs to take in all of Sleep No More in New York City. In general, I prefer my theater to come to me. Thankfully, taking in the Greater Good involves dealing with only three flights of stairs. But more important, and more to the point, Greenidge more than justifies the site-specific concept of her play, and uses both the location, and the consequent fragmentation of her story, to the advantage of the production’s larger effect.
The conceit is this: we the audience are prospective buyers for the building, which until recently housed a progressive private school, once on the cutting edge but now another option in an increasingly crowded field. As we are guided from room to room, we — the “buyers” — are led through a series of vignettes involving the teachers, the parents, and the administration. We are introduced to the fraught situation that led to the sale.
The buyers-tour device creates a wry sense of dramatic irony as we watch the situation unravelling. We know the outcome, but stand helplessly as we witness the last-minute machinations to save the school, firm in the knowledge that they are doomed to fail. Despite its fragmented structure, the story still moves along, as we travel back in time, taking in the organizational dysfunction and conflicting agendas that bedevil the underpaid faculty, the frustrated parents, and the school’s hapless headmaster. The audience members are split up into three tour groups; each witnesses the events in a different order. But the cumulative effect is the same: a haunting sense of loss and inevitability.
Playwright Greenidge (an Obie winner for Milk Like Sugar) deftly captures the infuriatingly intractable nature of (too) many organizations, but she does so with evocative, poetic language, as when one character insists, regarding the ineluctable nature of change, that “the volcano doesn’t ask.” Another character upbraids the man she is having an affair with by snapping, “You lose an inch every time you speak.” Sometimes Greenidge’s language becomes a bit too oblique, but more often her turns of phrase haunt and linger.
Although the play is, on the whole, compelling, Greenidge doesn’t quite connect all the dots by the end. This is perhaps intentional, but some crucial plot points could well use clarifying, in particular the motivations of a certain pivotal character and how her actions scared off potential donors and left the school the “laughing stock” of the city. This fuzziness may come from the dramatist’s decision to blend realistic elements with notes of surrealism. The effect is mostly cohesive, although the fantastical symbolic denouement proffers a slightly artificial feel-good quality.
Greenidge’s characters are vivid, if a bit two-dimensional, although that might spring from the playwright’s bent towards the polemical. Some character elements are a bit blunt, such as devices that show members of the parents council are stuck in the past, or that the headmaster is fiddling while Rome burns.
Director Steven Bogart’s staging is efficient, despite the logistical issues involved in ushering three groups around a double-size brownstone in the Back Bay. He locates the nine cast members (plus real-estate agents/tour guides) in the same world, a space that teeters (as the scenes require) between harsh reality and a heightened unreality. Scenic designer Cristina Todesco’s clutter sculptures — composed of swirling academic detritus, such as old textbooks and fragments of school furniture — in various locations throughout the building add to the story’s sense of disarray.
Greater Good features an outstanding ensemble cast of local performers and Company One regulars. Particularly strong are Dev Blair as the transgender faculty member Kyle; Dominic Carter as Michael, a member of the parents council who made his fortune in video games; Rachel Cognata as Christine/Ann, two of the more pivotal characters in the show; and Becca A. Lewis, wonderfully wistful and heartrending as Fern, a parent who had to take her kids out of the beloved school when their scholarships were revoked.
Despite its minor flaws, Greater Good is a fiercely compelling piece, confronting audience members with a complex exploration of some of the most pressing issues of our day. We hear the familiar cries of privilege from seemingly well-meaning characters: “Some of us are carrying the rest of us” and “People are not pulling their weight.” Only at the end of the play do we get a full sense of what Greenidge is getting at: what is equity? As the income gap grows ever larger, when does it become incumbent on the oh-so-fortunate to begin to pull their weight, to contribute their equitable share?
Christopher Caggiano is a writer and teacher based in Boston. He serves as Associate Professor of Theater at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. His writing has appeared in American Theatre and Dramatics magazines, and on TheaterMania.com and ZEALnyc.com.