As Jon Stewart knows, there's no better way to puncture pomposity than through humor. Stewart's well-researched jibes on The Daily Show continually reveal the hypocrisy behind many people in government and politics.
Playwright Eric Coble is often just as piercing and insightful with the social commentary in Fairfield, now enjoying its world premiere at the Cleveland Play House during their annual New Ground Theatre Festival. Coble is intelligent and clever, and the talented cast under the direction of Laura Kepley delivers this comedy with vigor. But because Coble can't quell his instinct to go for big laughs that defy character logic, the ultimate takeaway from this play is less than one might desire, given its subject matter.
That subject is race relations in a diverse school district where liberal attitudes are prevalent. And it is February, when the school is determined to celebrate Black History Month in the best way possible. Principal Angela Wadley (she's black) is a master of educational doublespeak, intoning phrases such as "mutual success ratio platform" and "professional knowledge support." But she is having a problem with rookie first grade teacher Laurie (she's white), who wears thrift store garb and is dizzily lost in a welter of pseudo-progressive lesson plans. For instance, she includes "watermelon" and "fried chicken" on the spelling list, to pay homage to the African-American diet, and assigns her students to act out Roots in class.
Laurie's excesses become a real issue during the play when Austin, a white kid playing a slave owner, yells the n-word at Deonte, a black kid playing a slave, then whips him with a chain of paper clips. Naturally, this gets around and soon everyone is all agog with shock and outrage. Wadley brings Laurie in for a talking-to, then Wadley herself is hauled in front of the school superintendent to get reamed out. Meanwhile Austin's parents, Scott and Molly, are trying to figure out how to react — as are Deonte's parents, Vanessa and Daniel.
During the first act, Coble tweaks many of the inherent absurdities of our modern, politically correct society, and good for him. As one character explains, the point of Black History Month is to recognize skin color, which doesn't matter. And there are plenty of instances of liberal piety to skewer. As when Vanessa muses on moving her son to a private school "where there's a more cultured racism." Although the kids never appear on stage, we get a sense of how the parents are tangled up in their own verbal and cultural underwear, trying to explain to their progeny the delicate matter of how to fight for your dignity, but not really fight, and so forth.
Coble is a polished playwright and he knows how to structure laugh lines. But as the play progresses, adult behavior begins to devolve into borderline chaos, with an ex-Black Panther addressing the school at an assembly and then launching into an expletive-riddled rant. Ultimately, all the characters have a nuclear meltdown at a CelebrEthnic potluck dinner. Is all this funny? Well, yes. But it requires the audience to believe that everyone on display is a functional dolt since they don't recognize the cultural trapdoors that words and ideas represent. Any comedy, like any village, can appoint one idiot, but Fairfield is bulging with them.
Plus, Coble can't resist the lure of juicy double entendres, even when they conflict with the character saying them. When the superintendent calls the principal on the carpet, he says, "I need head." Then he clarifies that what he really means is, "I need a head (on a platter)." But if Coble had written it the latter way, it wouldn't have gotten guffaws. This happens several times, including when Laurie quotes her mother as saying, "Break bread, not balls." Unless her mom is Shecky Greene working the midnight lounge at Caesar's Palace, this seems weirdly out of character. (And if she is working the lounge, she deserves a speaking part in this play.)
As Wadley, Nedra McClyde exudes the gloss of an educational professional, and Crystal Finn is determinedly clueless as Laurie. Brian Sills and Leenya Rideout neatly convey the frustrations of Austin's parents, while Marinda Anderson and Bjorn DuPaty give Vanessa and Daniel as much dimension as the script allows. They're all fine, until the cataclysm at the end.
By turning his characters into gag machines, and diverting a wickedly witty comedy of manners into a slapstick farce, the playwright creates a reverse hypocrisy. Coble is a generous, caring man who lives with his family in a liberal-leaning community in greater Cleveland, where he actually has served on the school board. But his words in Fairfield don't honor his deeds and beliefs, since the well-intentioned but sometimes misguided liberals in this play come off looking like Neanderthals and buffoons. That's a lot to give up for a few big laughs.