NEW YORK, NY.-
Theater people and academics share two traits: They are convinced of their callings moral importance to the world, which can provide a feeling of superiority, but they also often feel misunderstood and beleaguered, which makes them defensive. As members of a universitys theater department, the characters in Hillary Millers new comedy Preparedness presented by the Bushwick Starr and HERE belong to both constituencies, which means that their shoulders slump under boulder-size chips.
That wariness is warranted, though, as their department is under attack from the universitys brass, which wants not just to cut their budget, but eliminate the program altogether.
Figurative and literal survival become entangled when an irrepressibly chirpy human resources representative, Kath (Alison Cimmet), turns up in the departments shabby and decidedly not chic conference-slash-break room. If the teachers undergo state-mandated training on how to handle a potential mass shooting, they will have a better chance of surviving both a gunman and the deans delete button.
An assistant professor in the English department at Queens College and the author of books on theater, Miller is fluent in academias quirks and jargon, as well as interdepartmental rivalries dont get the theater professors started on their brethren in film and digital tech. She also nails bureaucracies love for acronyms, deployed here in a dizzying alphabet soup that includes MeRP (Mutual Respect Pledge), ACOST (Active Campus Operations Shooter Training) and GOHOHOF (Get Out, Hide Out, Help Out, Fight), as well as references to FERPP requests and FULAP forms.
Miller and director Kristjan Thor neatly sketch certain types that turn up in pretty much every group of educators. Most memorable are the beleaguered chairman, Jeff (Lou Liberatore), doing his darnedest to save his department, and Laurette (the wonderful Nora Cole, master of the haughty side eye), a grande dame prone to statement shawls and imbued with the authority that comes from charisma, experience and lofty ideals about her vocation. Were theater artists, she says. We create sacred spaces for a living!
Just as familiar is the high-strung, humorless Haydée García-Shelton (Tracy Hazas), who seems to have a hard time gelling with her colleagues she casually informs them that she got married over the weekend, as if it were no big deal and shows disdain for musicals and their fans. If you ask these people about my work, theyll pretend to care, and then theyll go right back to pushing their GoFundMe for bouffant wigs, she says. One guess as to who will eventually use pepper spray.
Getting this motley bunch to agree on anything, especially an administrative injunction perceived as an imposition, is akin to herding cats real ones, unlike Cat Blanchett, the departments new robotic Resilience Mascot, a gesture meant to help improve the sinking morale.
Ultimately, though, Miller cant resolve a central issue: Some of the professors refusal to undergo training is mystifying. Its easy to understand resistance to HR, but a quick training session that both covers a very real concern mass shootings in schools and saves your funding feels like a gimme. And yet they bicker.
Having painted herself into a corner, Miller cant figure out how to end the play. So she gives Laurette, who is retiring, the last word in the form of an address to her students. It is a good speech, and a dodge.
Through Dec. 11 at HERE Arts Center, Manhattan; thebushwickstarr.org. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times