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Editorial Review

Doorway Arts’ ‘Sex and Education’: Too few teachable moments

By Jane Horwitz
Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011

There is much that doesn't quite work in Doorway Arts Ensemble's "Sex and Education," an amiably intended high-school comedy. Even so, English majors and other grammatical purists will feel a frisson of joy when the teacher in Lissa Levin's play explains the difference between "lie" and "lay" to a disdainful student.

The small Doorway Arts company devotes itself to new plays and newly professional performers. Such a mission means taking chances.

"Sex and Education" has an awkwardly constructed script that is performed unevenly and staged flatly. A product of the Kennedy Center's 2009 Page-to-Stage Festival, the piece was later presented by Doorway Arts at the 2010 Capital Fringe Festival. While Levin has since revised her script, this one still has problems.

Actress Ellen Mansueto could bring more electricity to her Miss Edwards, but she has the tone right - resignation laced with bitterness and a scrap of idealism. Miss Edwards is retiring - make that quitting - and going into real estate. She's fed up with trying to inspire dozing teens.

On the last day of school, star basketball player Joe Marks (Jonathan Douglass) passes a note to his cheerleader girlfriend, Hannah (Emily Thompson), during the final exam. Miss Edwards grabs the note and keeps Joe after class. She reads aloud his obscenity-laced grab bag of random thoughts, designed to persuade Hannah to have sex with him. If Miss Edwards doesn't go easy on him, Joe could lose his college athletic scholarship.

For the rest of the play, in a series of relatively brief scenes, Miss Edwards badgers and cajoles him into turning his mash note into a well-shaped letter, explaining to Hannah why she is "ready" to have sex. No abstinence preaching here.

Hannah, pompoms in hand, occasionally interrupts the teacher-student joust with cheers that emphasize whichever rule of English Miss Edwards wants to explore. While Thompson is perky with the pompoms and fine in her other scenes, the cheers become cutesy exclamation points that get old fast.

Even less effective are Joe's and Miss Edwards's speeches, made directly to the audience. The two players keep stopping the action and turning away from each other to explain themselves. This feels like a crutch, as if the playwright had given up trying to weave plot and characters together organically.

The Los Angeles-based Levin has an impressive rsum, with years as a writer/producer on such hit 1980s and '90s sitcoms as "WKRP in Cincinnati" and "Mad About You." The way in which her play unfolds, with perpetual interruptions, has a whiff of TV about it. Nor are its flaws masked by director Perry T. Schwartz's loose staging. Better pacing would help a lot.

Douglass is likable as Joe, but anyone who writes so profanely and who hates learning as much as Joe does could have more edge to him.

The play has its moments. Miss Edwards has a fine speech explaining to Joe (not just to us) how education adds context, perspective and depth to life. And Joe gets to teach her about basketball in another winning exchange.

Still, if plays are a collection of moments, "Sex and Education" has too few.

The school-band-style music that plays under scene changes (sound design by Jay Gilman, music by Roger Coleman) hits the right note. The classroom set by Sean Urbantke is a spare but evocative space: You can almost smell the institutional mustiness.

Backstage: 'Sex and Education

By Jessica Goldstein
Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2011

In Doorway Arts Ensemble's "Sex and Education," Joe, the prototypical basketball star, is held hostage by Miss Edwards, an uptight English teacher clocking in her last day on the job. Miss Edwards intercepts a note that Joe tried to pass his girlfriend, Hannah (who, as the Law of High School Relationships requires, is a cheerleader), and Joe must remain in Miss Edwards's classroom until the note - a profanity-laced effort at persuading Hannah to have sex with him - is grammatically correct.

This raises some questions. Why would a prim female educator promote teen sex? Has any woman in the history of intercourse consented to sex only on the grounds her suitor's request was expressed in perfect English? Didn't students stop passing notes on paper in 2001?

Just . . . go with it. The pleasure in this production stems from the verbal sparring among radically different individuals, characters who shock by speaking deliberately out of character.

Playwright Lissa Levin was inspired by her own experience as the mother of a high school athlete; she taught her son, a basketball player utterly uninterested in English class, the parts of speech by speaking like a resident of South Park. (Her lesson began with a simple: "F--- you. What's the object of the sentence? You.")

Levin describes the play as "a valentine to teachers and a valentine to the importance of English grammar." The crux of the story lies in "how the wisdom and life experience that comes from [sex] is actually similar to all those things that come from when you're an educated person."

Miss Edwards sneaks a grammar lesson into a bawdy discussion of sex for the academia-averse athlete like cookbook writer Jessica Se infeld spikes brownies with spinach for vegetable-phobic children. Although much of the discussion is between Joe (played by Jonathan Douglas) and Miss Edwards (Ellen Mansueto), Hannah (Emily Thompson, in her professional stage debut) makes cameos throughout, shaking her pompoms while chanting a list of auxiliary verbs.

Levin hopes the play allows audiences to see language in a new light. "One of the goals of 'Sex and Education' was to make grammar sexy."

Theater 2 in the Cultural Art Center Montgomery College, 7995 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. Friday to Nov. 20. www.doorwayarts.org. 240-567-5775.