10/01/2013 10:25 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

First Nighter: Jon Robin Baitz's "Film Society" Well Projected at the Clurman

Jon Robin Baitz is the rare example of a playwright whose every play--with possibly one or two exceptions--is even better than the work that preceded it. Not bad, when you consider that he started out already well past the promising stage.
Although not necessarily the first script he wrote (that was Mizlansky/Zilinsky), the first one produced in New York (after bowing in London) was The Film Society, which the Keen Company is reviving at the Clurman and doing a fine job, too, under artistic director Jonathan Silverstein's guidance.
Set in 1970 at a foundering Durban, Natal Province, South Africa boys school called Blenheim, the play follows a handful of flailing "Blennies"-associated adults. The most central is Jonathon Balton (Euan Morton), who's formed a film society where he usually shows pallid comedies. (Incidentally, no youngsters are glimpsed throughout.)
Intent on remaining as apolitical as he can in a frenzied Apartheid atmosphere, Jonathon has trouble reconciling his friendship with the activism practiced by his only real friends, Terry Sinclair (David Barlow) and Terry's wife and activist to a lesser degree, Nan Sinclair (Mandy Siegfried). The shaky triumvirate is shaken more violently when Terry is fired after inviting a controversial black preacher to the campus for what's meant to be a genteel social outing.
As it happens, Jonathon wouldn't be the likeliest candidate to succeed headmaster Neville Sutter (Gerry Bamman)--neither would volatile professor Hamish Fox (Richmond Hoxie)--but since Jonathon's mother, Mrs. Balton (Roberta Maxwell), is rich, powerful, manipulative and willing to feed the institution desperately needed funds on the condition that her effete, movie-loving boy goes to the head of the line, that's where he lands.
In a series of scenes that feel more static during the first act than in the second but never allow the sharp dialogue to flag, Baitz thrusts the characters forward to challenge each other with their conflicting desires and motives. Terry and Nan debate the future of their marriage when they realize debts may require drastic changes of scene. It's a shift the ready-to-explode Terry turns out to want less than Nan. Headmaster Sutter worries that inflammatory incidents are leading to student attrition, even as the subject of the school's caning policy goes unquestioned. Mrs. Balton applies her wiles--and in a series of expensive, sometimes flamboyant outfits costume designer Jennifer Paar has picked out for her. Fox fulminates and then sickens.
It's Jonathon who's the fulcrum for the series of charged events. Reveling in reassuring films like That Touch of Mink and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House--the sorts of old-fashioned flicks even his charges have no interest in --he refuses to admit to himself that a much more crushing world is irreversibly encroaching. Whether he'll meet it head on or gird himself against it in whatever way he can is his dilemma. That anyone might get hurt in the process becomes less and less his concern. And Baitz, unflinching where his protagonist is the opposite, doesn't back off from depicting what unfortunate developments accrue to a spineless man bent on sparing himself realities.
The dramatist is invaluably aided by Morton, who sees Jonathon as just a few yards safely this side of Charles Dickens's hand wringing, flattering Uriah Heep. Increasingly seduced by the expensive tailored suits his mother picks out for him, Morton's Jonathon undergoes a gradual transformation from genially noncommittal to someone far more dangerously self-involved. Towards the end Baitz has Jonathan recall an odd rite of passage he was unable to complete involving killing a cow. Delivering the soliloquy as if Jonathon were reliving the episode, Morton reaches an acting zenith
Jonathon's changes affect the others while Blenheim's prospects are at stake. Prospects certainly shrink for dire-straits friends Nan and Terry Sinclair. And in sum, the Blenheim crises are the makings for a trenchant play based on Los Angeles-born Baitz's childhood in South Africa. He's the son of a Carnation executive transferred there and so, as a student, matriculated at a school that must have been very like the Blenheim he portrays.
As shown, the school and the troubled figures associated with it are, of course, intended to be stand-ins for an entire society gone off course. Jonathon undoubtedly represents any of number of well-heeled South Africans who understood exactly what was rotten in their state but were living far too comfortably to do anything constructive about it, if it involved even temporary disorientation.
To underline Baitz's political implications, set director Steven C. Kemp--who's divided the set into three parts (Jonathan's class room at the center, flanked by a room at the Sinclairs' home and Mrs. Balton's parlor)--has had a faded blue-and-black Commonwealth flag painted on the upstage wall. Scattered on it are jagged patches of African textiles. Is it kente cloth? Must be.
Morton in a non-singing role (his Broadway debut was as Boy George in Taboo) begins and ends the play alone on stage. (Touch of Evil, the movie he was watching at the start, takes on a new meaning.) He's hardly alone throughout most of the action, though, and everyone sharing the stage with him gives a strong performance. Often when he's momentarily gone, others do some nifty scene appropriating. Barlow and Siegfried definitely do in their most heated marital exchange, and whenever Maxwell gets into what Jonathon calls her "viper" mode, she also dominates.
By the way, the entire cast speaks with what sounds like an English accent rather than South African. This causes no real problem, although perhaps genuine South Africans who come upon it might notice the difference.