An online troll prowling a university class discussion board sends fear rippling throughout the campus in Norman Yeung’s suspense-drama Theory (★★½☆☆). The rising threat this harasser poses to classmates — and in particular to the progressive-minded professor, Isabelle (Musa Gurnis), who created the discussion board — propels an intriguing mystery.
But what actually propels the play, and the new, somewhat stilted production directed by Victoria Murray Baatin at Mosaic Theatre, are Professor Isabelle’s quixotic attempts to both challenge and liberate her students by allowing them space to speak their minds with absolute freedom. She tosses out the anodyne syllabus for her Intro to Film Theory class, declares she’ll be showing controversial titles like D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and invites the kids onto her anonymous discussion board, vowing never to censor nor delete anything they write. Regardless of how offensive, profane, or hurtful a comment might be, she’ll take nothing down.
Isabelle’s students, and her wife Lee (Andrea Harris Smith), a professor at the same university, argue that creating a space for “absolute freedom” is not a good idea. Of course, it’s a great idea for theater, a forum with as profound an interest as any classroom in creating a space to share ideas freely. If only the arguments for and against policing language didn’t pour out like screeds from the mouths of Isabelle, Lee, and understanding department head Owen (Tony K. Nam).
The students, too, sound like mouthpieces for respective sides of a standard political correctness debate. Although, Benairen Kane, as queer student Davinder, and Tyasia Velines, as easily triggered student Safina, reveal other engaging dimensions while providing solid comic relief. Gurnis is not entirely convincing as the well-intentioned firebrand at the center of the debate, but does persuasively sketch Isabelle’s rising panic once the troll’s online harassment starts to invade hers and Lee’s life together.
The foul-mouthed troll gets angrier, the language they use gets nastier, and words most nice people don’t like to hear, or be called, pile up on video screens mounted over the stage. Race, politics, and gender are practically all these characters are about — yet, the production treads too safely to provoke. All the script’s strongly-worded arguments feel too tastefully arranged and presented, fussed over rather than lived-in, like the set’s characterless, coordinating lime decor.
Theory runs through Nov. 17 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Tickets are $50 to $65. Call 202-399-7993, ext. 2 or visit www.mosaictheater.org.