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Behind rollicking comedy, 'The Tutor' meditates on the nature of exploitation in art
Early on in “The Tutor,” there’s a fear, an icky sense of dread, that things between the titular private teacher and his teenage client could go in an inappropriate direction. The burden is on the former of course: a wolfish smile here, a turn of phrase there, smooth talk so greasy it slides uphill.
Ease your stomachs, people. Ultimately, Village Theatre's latest musical only threatens to become a story about a July/March romance. But it’s a knowing switcheroo in the service of a complex meditation on the nature of exploitation in art — and, in a broader sense, a story about selfish people learning how to give as much as they take in their relationships.
Make no mistake: Eric Ankrim’s Edmund begins his character arc as a predator, if a chaste one. At the story’s opening, we meet him in his cramped New York apartment as a disheveled writer scribbling longhand notes for his first novel, “a surreal, kaleidoscopic journey through time, place and genre” (a description any writers in the audience will painfully recognize as code for “an overlong manuscript devoid of life or clear direction”). Not content to labor in poverty or share working hours with a full-time job, he falsifies Ivy League credentials to wrangle lucrative afternoon tutoring jobs from the “stupid rich kids” of affluent families.
So he salivates at the opportunity to put on a tweed blazer and double his price for the surly daughter of Upper East Side dwelling Princeton alumni. Enter Sweetie (Katie Griffith, with scheduled alternate performances by Tatum Ludlam), emerging from the mists with a goth punk fashion sense and a “can’t tell me what to do” attitude. Their working relationship begins as a purely parasitic arrangement. Edmund subjects his student to rote English exercises that will carry him toward his next paycheck; Sweetie, in turn, blackmails her tutor for free time when she discovers his degree is more Hacky Sack than rowing team.
It’s only when Sweetie gives input on Edmund’s manuscript that they learn to cooperate. No longer merely tolerating each other, they look forward to what have become joint writing sessions. But this dynamic, too, is doomed. Swept up in the book’s romance — and ecstatic to be valued for her thoughts — Sweetie begins to see Edmund as a potential lover. Edmund privately muses that, though his pupil “makes (him) write like Nabokov,” he will never think of her as a Lolita. The statement is a relief until you realize Edmund doesn’t even think of Sweetie as a friend. She’s a muse, a resource, something to be used up for material gain — but a friend? No.
Sweetie may be the one who dresses the part, but she’s beset on all sides by vampires with one-sided ambitions. Edmund, who uses her idealism for inspiration. Her mother, whose desire to see her daughter succeed on the SATs becomes transparent as a means to vicariously relive her own college years. Her father, who would rather his daughter just be “normal” than get to know the person she is. Even strangers eventually clamor for her youthful insight.
“I’m basically a kid,” she cries in the face of events in act two. “Why would you want me to tell you what to think, or how to act? Isn’t that your job? Isn’t someone supposed to tell me?”
Beth DeVries and Hugh Hastings provide strong, empathetic performances as Sweetie’s parents, the pseudo-Buddhist, co-op board politicking Esther and the chronically exasperated Richard, whose enduring desire for everyone to just Leave Him Alone is as endearing as it is convincing.
Kirsten Delohr Helland and Matthew Kacergis are delightful as Edmund’s time-hopping literary characters Hildegarde and Sean (both have secondary roles as Pippie, a vegan with impulse control issues, and Sweetie’s pot-addled beau, Bo, respectively).
It’s in their performance that “The Tutor” flexes its muscle as a true writer’s musical. Writing is a solitary and introverted affair, generally not suited for exciting depictions on stage or screen. Many stories work around this obstacle by sidestepping the act of writing altogether, focusing instead on the much-mythologized and often misrepresented “writer’s life” — an archetype that has probably inspired more pseudo-intellectual alcoholics than wordsmiths.
In their fantasy sequences, Hildegarde and Sean are extensions of Edmund’s imagination, but they show off just how unruly the imaginary world can be. So, sure, they’ll act out their creator’s narrative — just as soon as they’ve picked apart every setting, dialogue and action choice he’s made, and made a pretty solid case for why he should just quit altogether.
If that’s not an accurate depiction of the “writer’s life,” accuracy is a lie.