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by Elyse Sommer
Is honour, like God in Paris cafes, dead? Do we no longer have need of the stuffy old fool?
---Dr. James Scattergood
T. R. Knight & Brian Murray
T. R. Knight & Brian Murray
(Photo: Dixie Sheridan)
There's a whole genre of films and stage plays about dynamic teachers and their relationships with one or several impressionable students. The Dead Poet Society and Educating Rita immediately come to mind. Add to these, Anto Howard's new play about Dr. James Scattergood, a Dublin professor in Medieval Romances of England and France, and Brendan Hillard, a brilliant but socially inept scholarship student with a prodigious memory -- and to stir the cavalierly fancies of young Hillard, there's a female student, Miss Regan, who's anything but "Lady Virtuous."

Staged with lots of telling detail and considerable flair in the cozy Samuel Beckett Theatre by Doug Hughes, the play begins with Professor Scattergood rushing down the aisle and addressing the audience as if they were his young medieval scholars at the beginning of the Trinity College semester. Scattergood is obviously bent on being as amusing as a teacher of such an archaic topic can be. "A few new skulls out there I recognize" he declares with a smile. "To the rest of you. What the hell are you doing here? Hasn't anyone told you? It's a waste of time. Useless. Those of you wise enough to leave do so now. No hard feelings."

Of course, with Brian Murray playing Scattergood, the "students" remain firmly rooted in their seats. Even if the play were spoken in Latin, instead of sprinkled with Latin phrases, all who are familiar with the ubiquitous and never less than outstanding Murray, know that it's a pleasure to just let his mellifluous voice and crystal clear enunciation roll over you. His toothy, mischievous smile is equally irresistible.

Howard is himself a Trinity College graduate who now lives in New York where this play has been nurtured under the guidance of MCC's literary manager, Stephen Williams. It explores several interlocking themes: The relevancy, or lack of it, of the code of honor by which the knights of olden day lived their lives in an age dominated by scoundrels who prefer self-gratification to doing the right thing. . .a mentor's responsibility not to do damage to an emotionally fragile student and the recognition that intellectual games can lead to painful truths for the supposedly stronger player.

If all this sounds terribly serious and scholarly, it is -- and it isn't. Scattergood is a serio-comedy, with a situation that starts out as a highbrow sitcom and draws to a tug-at-the-heart conclusion. Scattergood's opening lecture ties a tabloid story about Julia Roberts and Kiefer Sutherland to an obscure text about rules of honor and forces the stammering Brandon Hillard (delightfully, and touchingly rendered by T. R. Knight) to get up from his seat and read out loud.

At the end of the class, the aggressive Miss Regan (Tari Signor making the most of the play's third banana role) invites Brandon to a party and takes him to the men's bathroom to read the graffiti legend that has earned Scattergood the nickname "Dr. Love." The Dr. Love graffiti and Miss Regan's invitation kick up Brandon's fantasy of romance according to Scattergood's The Rule of the Order of Chivalry which he's memorized word for word. Scattergood, impressed, with Hillard's intelligence, decides to help him.

And the plot thickens. Miss Regan is apparently reeled into the fantasy, becoming Roxanne to Brandon's Cyrano and writing several perfumed letters. Scattergood tells Brandon his own love-with-honor story. By the time the whole situation, not surprisingly, explodes no one is laughing. Not Scattergood. Not Miss Regan. Not Brandon -- though he does stop stuttering thus keeping the serio-comedy label true to the end.

Scattergood does not quite live up to its intellectual tour de force pretensions. It's essentially a knight's eye view of the dating game. . The interaction between Brian Murray and T. R. Knight is terrific and worth the price of admission -- which on Tuesday evenings includes a post-performance talkback.


Written by Anto Howard
Directed by Doug Hughes
Cast: Professor James Scattergood/Brian Murray, Brendan Hillard/.R. Knight, Alison Regan/Tari Signor
Set Design: Hugh Landwehr
Costume Design: Linda Fisher
Lighting Design: Clifton Taylor
Original Music & Sound Design: David Van Tieghem
Running time: 2 hours, includes one 10-minute intermission
Samuel Beckett at Theater Row, 410 W 42nd St. (9th/10th Aves). 212-279-4200. web site
2/14/03-3/22/03; opening 2/26/03. Tues @7:30pm; Wed-Sat @8pm; Sat and Sundays at 2:30 -- $45.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommerbased on February 21st press performance.
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