Looking back now, a movie like The Breakfast Club seems so innocent, but back when I was a teen, watching the movie with my friends in the actual movie theater, we were in awe of how “a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal” could find common ground one Saturday – linked by the shared tragedy of a day together in detention.
On Campus, written by Steve Sherman and directed by Marc Santa Maria is a much weightier tale set not in the halls of a high school but in the dorm rooms, class rooms and connecting paths of a college campus. And while the same familiar characters populate the story – the jock, the popular girl, the sensitive guy, the angsty artistic girl (with a few new faces thrown in: the funny Jason Segel-esque side kick and the studious, sweet Mexican girl) – the tale being told is far different. On this campus the stakes are higher, the choices are harder, and the tragedy is no longer as quaint as a Saturday spent locked up in the school library. No, here, On Campus, these kids are literally dealing with life and death.
Upon walking into the LABA Theater at the 14th Street Y the first thing you’ll notice is the fantastically detailed and elaborate set. Scenic Designer Daniel Zimmerman (assisted by Jake Millgard who plays Stub) really did an outstanding job of transforming the generously large space at LABA into several dorm rooms on a college campus linked together by winding paths. In the world of off-off Broadway where a car is usually represented by two chairs and a living room is the same two chairs plus a box with a doily on it, it’s really nice to see a play called On Campus take place … well … on campus.
Once the action begins the set allows the audience to view all the characters simultaneously, in real time – so despite the fact that we’re watching a conversation upstage we can still watch another character curled up their bed down stage, for instance. This allows us to take in university life as a whole, to let the characters and their daily habits sit with us consciously and subconsciously – we become one of them as we settle into their world.
Writer Steve Sherman pulls double duty here, he’s not only the playwright but he plays Nathan, the sensitive guy who has a crush on Mexican newcomer Dona (Sarah Saunders) but needs his roommate Stub (Jake Millgard) to talk him into actually taking the relationship from just friends to something more.
Dona’s roommate is the beautiful and popular Jackie (Chloe Tuttle) who is furtively dating big-man-on-campus superjock Zeke (Ed Stelz) desperately trying to keep it a secret from her estranged best friend, and Zeke’s sister, Harmony (Caitlin Gold). While this is probably for the best, it’s just another way that Harmony feels out of the loop. She’s already the “misunderstood artsy” girl, oddly mismatched with her golden boy brother and desperately lonely on the other side of campus. When she reaches out to a friendly teacher (played by Bobby Plasencia) her desperate need to bond with someone turns dangerous. The ramifications of her actions winds up affecting every one of the characters in ways no one could have predicted.
Sherman, as a playwright, is quite young – surprisingly so; for one so young he’s written a polished and well crafted play. The writing is sharp and crisp with well defined characters who speak dialogue that sounds natural and convincing. Under Marc Santa Maria’s direction Sherman’s plot line quietly unfolds – but it doesn’t meander; Maria doesn’t rush the dramatic points but also doesn’t lag either. Sherman has written a play that is able to skillfully interweave the lives of all these characters, show us their individual journeys while still giving us the big picture of how one person’s actions can cause ripples that affect those in their community. Each actor of the ensemble is strong, and does a standout job; there are no lost moments here.
Sherman explains that “characters from ON CAMPUS were inspired by my service work for the non-profit organization ESPERANZA (“hope”) which is located in Tijuana, Mexico. I wrote it in the wake of many suicides at universities in New York.”
With only a few days left in the run, take some time and go On Campus.
~~~ON CAMPUS The LABA Theater 14th Street Y 344 East 14th Street [between First and Second Avenues] Performances through Saturday, March 26th Click Here for tickets. Running time: 1 hours and 45 minutes including one intermission