By the 1970s, the British Empire had begun to crumble and South Africa was still in the throes of Apartheid - and it is against this backdrop that all of the action in Jon Robin Baitz’s remarkably insightful play, The Film Society, takes place. Set in Blenheim, a boys’ boarding school in Durban, South Africa in late 1970, the play revolves around the inevitable changing of the guard at Blenheim and the conflicts and contradictions faced by Jonathon Balton (Euan Morton) as he attempts to balance his nascent youthful liberalism and his loyalty to his friends, Terry Sinclair (David Barlow) and Nan Sinclair (Mandy Siegfried) against his love for his school, his devotion to his mother, Mrs. Balton (Roberta Maxwell), and his obligations to the school’s owner and Headmaster, Neville Sutter (Gerry Bamman) - and all within the context of his own personal loneliness and self interest.
Originally produced in Los Angeles in 1987, when Baitz was still only in his mid-20s, and making its New York debut a year later, The Film Society is now enjoying its first New York revival in an excellent off Broadway staging by The Keen Company at The Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row on West 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan. Directed by Jonathan Silverstein, the play effectively captures the ambivalent spirit of the times and the inevitable conflict between generations.
On the one hand, we have Neville Sutter who has sought to navigate a gradualist course, modernizing the school’s philosophy by hiring younger, idealistic teachers like Jonathon, Terry and Nan while not fully abandoning the school’s traditional values. In his camp is his Assistant Headmaster, Hamish Fox (Richmond Hoxie), a retired military officer, who has clung even more tenaciously to the school’s old values – including cricket, penmanship, and caning, not necessarily in that order. And finally there is the wealthy Mrs. Balton whose deceased husband provided Neville with the funds he needed to purchase the school in the first place.
On the other side are the mildly activist Terry, whose invitation to a black priest/educator to participate in Blenheim’s centenary celebration enraged the parents of the school’s students and threatened the school’s very existence; and his wife, Nan, even less radicalized than her husband but still much more aware than Neville, Hamish or Mrs. Balton that, indeed, ”the times they are a’changing.”
And then there is Jonathon, whose sympathies well may be with Terry and Nan - it is he, after all, who seeks to expand his students’ horizons by exposing them to classic films, whence the title of the play – but whose ties to his mother, his headmaster, his school, and his own self-interest are what create the tensions that make this play so well worth seeing.
What is seen as betrayal and “selling out” by one man may be interpreted as “becoming an adult,” or “facing reality” by another. That is the question that confronts us in judging Jonathon. Depending upon the choices he makes, will he be betraying his friends and “selling out” - or simply “growing up” and “facing reality”? Or is there even more (or less?) to Jonathon than meets the eye? Might his actions simply be a matter of his own self-interest or self-preservation – or even just a reflection of his own insecurities?
All of the actors in this revival of The Film Society have been well cast and all deserve praise for their performances. In particular, Gerry Bamman, in the role of Neville Sutter, perfectly captured the essence of an uptight controlled traditional British Headmaster; Richard Hoxie was absolutely delightful as Hamish Fox - the retired British military officer now serving as Neville’s Assistant Headmaster; and David Barlow portrayed the mildly activist but ultimately submissive Terry Sinclair with beautiful precision. Most outstanding was Euan Morton who succeeded admirably in pulling off the most challenging role of all, that of the lonely, ambivalent and conflicted Jonathon Balton,
The symbolism which permeates The Film Society is sometimes quite heavy-handed. Blenheim, itself, a declining boys’ school clinging to the past, may be taken as a proxy for all of South Africa in the days of apartheid. When Jonathon orders a copy of the film “A Touch of Mink” to show to the students in his “Film Society,” he receives a print of “A Touch of Evil” instead - a harbinger, one might suspect, of the unexpected consequences yet to come. Neville is going blind - reflecting, perhaps, his refusal to see the changes coming to South Africa - although they are all around him. And Hamish is suffering from terminal spine cancer – about which no further explanation would seem necessary.
The heavy handedness of all that symbolism might best be explained by Baitz’ relative youth when he wrote the play and, had he been a bit more subtle, the play might have been even more effective.. But that is a very minor quibble over what is otherwise a very stimulating production and one well worth seeing.