In the course of the play “Lives of Reason,” which is at the Two River Theater in Red Bank through Feb. 7, characters call the protagonist, Ilona Cabot (played by Mairin Lee), “a remarkable woman,” someone who is “close to life,” and whose “passion touches the sublime.”
I didn’t see it that way. To me, she is just a woman who has a rather tenuous grasp on reality, and needs a massive amount of psychological help. Fast. The fact that the other characters don’t recognize that immediately, and actually seem somewhat charmed by her, is one of the major flaws of this new play.
The premise is a good one, with lots of opportunities for intellectual banter. Ilona is a faculty wife at the not-particularly-prestigious Livingston College (a fictional school, located in an unnamed Northeastern city), and her marriage to Jeffrey (Matthew Lieff Christian), a young English professor who may be on the verge of a career breakthrough, is in rough shape. The rich, handsome Matthew Livingston (Peter Rini), who is the son of the college’s founder, happens to be an old flame she’s still in love with. She sees an English faculty party that Matthew attends as an opportunity to rekindle that romance, even though she’s still, technically, married to Jeffrey.
Also, there’s an open dean’s position that several of the English professors are vying for.
Ilona is young and smart and beautiful and vivacious. Among the professors, Sam is a Milquetoast, Sam DeLuca (Philip Goodwin) is old and cautious, Carl Cooper (Maurice Jones) is a rising star with trendy academic interests, and Hartley Clare (William Parry) is an overbearing crank. The apparent frontrunner for the dean’s position — Andrew Hedman (Jay Russell), who is hosting the party — is obsessed with Swinburne to the point where everyone else thinks he’s ridiculous.
Can Ilona escape this stifling environment? And how many literary references can playwrights Robert Rechnitz and Kenneth Stunkel pack in? (The answer is “a lot,” but one of the most enjoyable things about “Lives of Reason” is catching them as they whiz by).
Ilona flirts outrageously with most of the professors, as well as college president Jacob Stein (John C. Vennema) and Jimmy (Patrick Monaghan), a student who happens to stop by. She also acts out, bizarrely and sometimes violently, from virtually the moment she steps onstage. The offense she takes at a satirical poem in a school newspaper seems totally out of proportion, and her hard lobbying for Sam to get the dean’s position doesn’t seem realistic (the explanation that she wants to “soften their breakup” isn’t satisfying).
Most crucially, it doesn’t seem plausible that Matthew would take her advances as seriously as she does. Any sane man — and Matthew seems pretty sane, overall — would run away as fast as he could.
It’s a nice, cynical twist that Stein thinks that Hedman might be right for the dean’s job because he’s so worthless as an academic, and I think the playwrights get the tensions and petty rivalries that can exist between seemingly benign, tweedy academic colleagues just right.
But Ilona is at the heart of the play. And Ilona is a deeply unsatisfying character. That’s a flaw that no amount of witty dialogue can overcome.
For information, visit tworivertheater.org.