- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The innuendoes, trailing sentences and knowing glances are pure 1950s. The rendering of institutionalized bullying in Robert Anderson’s 1954 play “Tea and Sympathy” is timeless.

“Tea and Sympathy” was shocking in its day for its treatment of homophobia — which was explored without ever breathing the word “homosexual” — as well as for the notion that a lonely 30-ish woman could find comfort in the arms of an equally lonely 17-year-old boy.

Her action spawned one of the most famous come-hither lines in the 20th century: “Years from now, when you talk about this — and you will — be kind.” That was more than a decade before Anne Bancroft’s leopard-print-clad Mrs. Robinson seduced Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate,” creating the cultural template of the sophisticated older woman and the gullible young man in his sexual prime.

The American Century Theater does a credible job mining this old chestnut for relevance in today’s licentious society. The acting is wildly uneven, which usually is the case for an American Century production, but director Steven Scott Mazzola gets sensitive and affecting performances from leads Sherri S. Herren as Laura Reynolds, the headmaster’s wife, and Joe Baker as Tom Lee, the misunderstood boy.

Set in a posh New England prep school, “Tea and Sympathy” is reputed to have been modeled on Mr. Anderson’s observances as a student at the Phillips Exeter Academy. The school in Mr. Anderson’s play is clearly a place where fathers send their sons to be schooled strictly in the art of manliness.

This dictum does not allow for much beyond the most macho and boorish behavior. The cavalier attitude toward females and the roughhousing outside the athletic fields are tolerated because they prove that the boys are manly, i.e., heterosexual.

Anyone exhibiting a trace of being different is subjected to systemized teasing and prejudice, and the administration tacitly encourages this by not getting involved. The “sissy du jour” in this case is Tom Lee, a confused adolescent who likes to play guitar and act in the school’s plays. In this rigidly conformist society, he might as well be wearing a flowered hat and high heels.

Headmaster Bill Reynolds, absurd in his hypermasculine posturing, believes that bullying is good for Tom because ultimately it will toughen him up for real life. Only one other person — another soul completely out of place at the school — is willing to challenge the system.

Laura Reynolds finds a kindred spirit in Tom, and their relationship forces her to see her sham of a marriage in a harsh, unflattering light. Needless to say, Tom is not the only character who may or may not be in the closet.

“Tea and Sympathy” is notable for its gentle, almost demure portrayal of those who don’t fit in. American Century’s production emphasizes the genteel aspects of Mr. Anderson’s play with a tasteful treatment that won’t rattle the teacups.

There is one major problem with the staging, comprising a parlor and a boys’ dorm room up a short flight of stairs. Though it is commendable for Mr. Mazzola to have the audience surrounding the set, as if eavesdropping, the design provokes sight problems from every angle.

That homosexuality existed in 1950s New England will not flabbergast anyone. Where “Tea & Sympathy” quietly triumphs is in its depiction of social isolation and bigotry. Cruelty, it seems, has no sexual preference.

***

WHAT: “Tea and Sympathy,” by Robert Anderson

WHERE: American Century Theater, Theater II, Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 5.

TICKETS: $18 to $26

PHONE: 703/553-8782

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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