Quartermaine’s Terms by Simon Gray. Directed by Maria Aitken.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...an ability not to let the world impinge on you."
Jefferson Mays as Quartermaine; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Simon Gray’s play "Quartermaine’s Terms" deals with life in a school in Cambridge, England devoted to the English language skills taught as a second language. It deals with a teacher named St. John Quartermaine, a long-term member of the faculty and covers the period of two and a half years which is at least seven terms. It also deals with Quartermaine’s life and the terms under which he lives that life. An uninspiring man, a less than perfect teacher, he is a bachelor with no visible history, no friends outside the small group of associates at the school and no interests or life beyond the walls of his limited imagination: he’ll go to the theater but won’t know the name of the play he is about to see, or care to know it actually. This is a man who exists within the tiny framework he has allowed himself, mostly encompassed by the walls of the staff room at the Cull-Loomis School of English for Foreigners.
Quartermaine himself is a foreigner of a different sort. While every other member of the faculty has a relationship, he has none. He may be invited to the home of one or another of his colleagues, but he never has them to his home. Like visiting royalty he stands aloof, yet enthusiastic, about whatever happens to his associates. He basks in the reflected glory of their accomplishments; he observes their needs and accommodates to them as he can. He is not a part of their lives, and yet he lives only because of them. When he is cast adrift, as happens, he is unable to depart the sanctity of the room.
Quartermaine is difficult to like. Even so, we sympathize with him, find ourselves on his side, whatever that side may be. His take on human existence is impossible to grasp and so we build him an identity and a value that are not really his own. He is, literally, the blank canvas upon which we write his character for him. In a curious way he is Everyman by being no-man.
Gray is brilliant at characters. He writes each one so specifically that we cannot possibly muddle them in our minds. We know the voice, heart and soul, mind and body of everyone on the stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival production of this play. Gray leaves us no room to debate about the character of Anita, Mark, Eddie, Derek, Henry and Melanie. He has given to each of them a speech pattern, a rhythm, a look, a history and a feeling that are unique. We know them. It is only Quartermaine who is barren of identity.
In the hands of actor Jefferson Mays, Quartermaine is tall, slender, dapper, well-groomed, soft-spoken and charming. He says "terrific" much too often. Mays is wonderful as this teacher who cannot teach himself to be human. There is a quality to this combination of actor and character that brings out the idleness of spirit that is Quartermaine’s. As we watch him we want to know him but that is not possible. All we can do is assume things. Mays moves in a lethargic manner that is suitable to someone in a Fibromyalgia fog and in doing so he gives us a clue that Gray hasn’t neatly supplied. Quartermaine, loosely interpreted or translated as one fourth of the disputed portion of land in France once deeded to Britain, is a reflection of such division and Mays plays the minute parcels of manhood as best he can.
In the final scene Quartermaine is dressed in tuxedo and bow-tie giving the impression that he was dragged out of a potential date of some importance. In reality he is not even one fourth a part of that fantasy. He has merely tried on the suit to see if it still fits, a concept that instantly transports him, in our minds, to a different way of life, one that befits his manner and his bearing. But this is only supposition and Mays plays that by not playing it at all. Whatever fantasies about him we could spin based on his look and movement, is squashed by his plain-spoken refusal to be appreciated. Actor and role are "terrific," much as Remak Ramsay was in the 1983 off-Broadway production of the play and Edward Fox was in the 1987 film.
Stephen Kunken is excellent as Mark Sackling, a would-be author whose life is going down the toilet. His energy and his anguish were superb. Jeremy Beck as the new man at the school, Derek Meadle, is quirky and fun and altogether the spirit of personal anguish.
Ann Dowd is superb in the role of Melanie Garth who hates her mother and is called on the carpet by the local police after Mum’s death for infractions that are hilariously imagined. John Horten makes the most of his traditionally British gay schoolmaster and Morgan Hallett is just fine as Anita.
Simon Jones plays Henry Windscape, another teacher whose job it becomes to alter the future for Quartermaine. A prattler, Windscape uses Quartermaine as a surrogate to replace him when social activity is required of him. Jones knows how to handle such a role and he makes Henry an obvious abuser of friendship offered. Jones also knows how to handle the glib aspects of his character without making the man boring. Instead, Jones takes Henry to unexpected middle ground when he manipulates, or tries to manipulate the others. In a secondary role it is a first class portrayal of a man who could be considered a louse.
Scenic Designer Derek McLane has created a school room that is a delectable creation, tall slender walls supporting a ceiling that provides a sense of old world charm and sophistication. The room and the outside world beyond are perfectly lit by Kevin Adams whose combination of practical lights and stage effects are beautiful to behold. The costumes by Martin Pakledinaz are just right for these people. Dialect coach Stephen Gibbs has worked hard with his actors to create the perfect regional accents which, though sometimes difficult to cut through, help define the people in the play.
It is a tribute to the director, Maria Aitken, and her work that we do feel like flies on the wall in this school room. There is a wonderfully natural flow to everyone and to every action. There is great humor in this play and she brings it out of her actors, sometimes I suspect with a heavy fishing line and a sinker, but it works well. She allows us to laugh at Simon Gray’s lines while empathizing with his characters.
This is not the sort of play to satisfy easy theater goers who want to be entertained. While we laugh, and we sometimes hold back a sigh or a gasp, we are not laughing at great comedy or even superb humanity. We are involved here with an enigma personality and that won’t settle comfortably for most people. This play is one that won’t come around often and its greatest gift is an understanding of the tolerance some people have for folks who cannot be met even half way into a friendship, a forced friendship at that. See the play if you want to think about the levels of human existence; see it if you want to know what it is like to talk with a half a person. Or see it if you want to see Jefferson Mays give a remarkable performance, interpreting a character who isn’t really there. But don’t go expecting to be entertained. For that you would need a really dynamic teacher, or personality, and not Quartermaine. Not on his terms, at any rate.
Stephen Kunken and Morgan Hallett; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Simon Jones; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Quartermaine’s Terms plays through August 23 at the ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance at 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, Massachusetts. For schedules, information and tickets call the box office at 413-597-3400.