Chicago playwright Ike Holter’s “Exit Strategy” is simultaneously advertised as a “razor-sharp comedy” and an “edge-of-your-seat drama,” which periodically makes for an uneven mix in guest director John Dillon’s staging for True Colors Theatre.
The story unfolds at an inner-city high school that’s marked for closure and demolition, due to low test scores and other “unfavorable (socioeconomic) conditions.” In the opening scene, a fractious veteran teacher, Pam (Tess Malis Kincaid), and the nebbish-y young vice principal, Ricky (Matthew Busch), debate the impending situation with dialogue that frequently crackles with a balanced wit and candor, before culminating with an overwrought and somewhat illogical bang.
As the sole “authority figure” on view, poor Ricky is clearly outnumbered. Over the course of the one-act play, mostly set in the teachers’ lounge, we eventually meet several other faculty members who share Pam’s sense of school spirit – not to mention her concerns about job security: Sadie (Tracey N. Bonner), who goes above and beyond in her call to duty; Jania (Diany Rodriguez), who has been here and done this all before; and Luce (Ralph Del Rosario), whose main function in the plot is probably best left a secret.
Even more than Ricky, their principal antagonist turns out to be one of their colleagues, the jaded Arnold (an excellent William S. Murphey), who’d rather just bide his time than fight and possibly fail. Representing the entire student body is Donny (Lau’rie Roach), whose well-intentioned hacking of the school’s web site motivates the rest of his elders to take decisive action.
For practical purposes, of course, the ensuing groundswell of community support and consequent protest rallies transpire off-stage, which often has the odd effect of making the characters seem vaguely detached – only indirectly involved with their own cause, essentially tracking the media coverage of it from their mobile devices.
The pivot point among them is Ricky, whose sudden transformation from pencil-pushing administrator to hoodie-wearing activist isn’t very convincingly executed here by the actor Busch, with all due respect (or “ADR,” to quote a running one-liner in the show). The performance plays OK comedically, but it’s dramatically shallow. The same is true of Roach’s Donny, who feels less genuine the more serious he gets (“ADR,” natch).
Dillon, who previously helmed 2014’s terrific “Race” for True Colors artistic director Kenny Leon, invests the production with a palpable urgency and a brisk momentum. Nor is there any denying that Holter’s heart is in the right place, articulately addressing a lot of relevant issues.
Inadvertently, though, the end result of “Exit Strategy” is tantamount to “Pfeiffer-ing” the matter (as one character might put it, referring to the renegade urban educator Michelle Pfeiffer portrayed in the movie “Dangerous Minds”). By basically simplifying the larger conflicts as they pertain to the personal struggles of Ricky, it’s not as surprising as it is understandable that the play’s climactic finale lacks the emotional punch it truly deserves.
Through March 19. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; 11 a.m. Wednesday (March 8 only). $17.50-$45.75. Southwest Arts Center, 915 New Hope Rd., Atlanta. 1-877-725-8849. www.truecolorstheatre.org.
Bottom line: Generally well-meaning, if not exactly well-measured.
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