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Mar 17

The Academic @ Ochre
House Theater

Olivia de Guzman and Jeff Burleson in The Academic

—Jan Farrington

It shouldn’t be this much fun watching things go to pieces.

But undeniably, Justin Locklear’s one-act play The Academic—the second installment of Ochre House Theater’s “In the Garden” series—gets plenty of laughs (and a couple of groans). Then it tosses you out on your ear in a tight 45 minutes, still shaking your head. What was that, you ask?

But you’re smiling.

Mix a bit of The Bald Soprano with a dash of Pleasantville, and you’ll catch something of the tone of this whacky, word-happy story about a college-faculty marriage—a tale that begins in a garden, but inches ever closer to a cliff, metaphorically speaking. The professor and his wife, happily locked into grand ideas about themselves, are Robert Lewis Stephenson (Jeff Burleson), an impressive name “even if spelled differently,” and wife Louisiana Ball Stephenson (Olivia de Guzman), at first glance a perky, petite cheerleader for her Big Guy’s career. Robert carries her onstage, in fact, into a lovely walled garden overlooking the hills (set design and artistry by Matthew Posey and Izk Davies, with Kevin Grammer’s pretty lights). He murmurs playful endearments into her ear. “Ooh,” she cries, clutching her cheek. “You’re so sweet you gave me a cavity.” Cue the fond laughter.

But this garden might not be Edenic for long. Robert says, abruptly, that he must write a letter of apology to the college—and faithful Louisiana’s insatiable curiosity (and dawning doubts) about the why’s and who’s of his situation, is a marvel to watch. De Guzman’s glassy smile and probing questions never stop as she cuts through her husband’s cheerful bluster (Burleson’s deer-in-headlights expression is priceless) and jots it all down in a little black book.

Burleson’s broad and increasingly desperate comic moves are the panicky, arm-waving background of the story, but under Locklear’s nicely busy direction, it’s de Guzman we can’t stop watching: her precise, almost-automaton movements, her bright, retro petticoat dress (Locklear’s costumes as well!), her intense gaze and frozen smile as she absorbs each doubtful detail of her husband’s, er, story. We’re happy not to be the unfortunate slide under her microscope.

I can say no more without spoiling the amusements, and the touch of sadness, in this offbeat offering. Absurdist in its obsessive, sometimes nonsensical wordplay, especially about love (Is the wife “the dessert” or “a deserter”? Both, it might seem), The Academic also keeps an Existentialist watch on these two humans, playing their game of illusions—for as long as they can keep that ball in the air.

Ochre House’s 50-seat theater is a fine spot for an intimate play, and it’s good to see another company return to live theater after long absence. A streaming version of the play, directed by John D. Jordan, will be available later on the Ochre House YouTube channel.

WHEN: Through March 26

WHERE: Ocre House Theater, 825 Exposition Avenue, Dallas

WEB: ochrehousetheater.org/