Canadian playwright Norman Yeung’s Theory opens as a young tenure-track professor Isabelle (Musa Gurnis) discusses the syllabus with her film theory class. The semester promises a mix of the canonical and the radical. So while the students are already uncomfortable with the inclusion of Triumph of the Will, in which Leni Riefenstahl codified the iconography of Naziism, the explicit sex and violence of more recent provocations like Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi’s Baise-Moi have some of the more woke students demanding trigger warnings on films Isabelle refuses to cancel, and boycotting screenings. But what worries her undergraduates even more is Isabelle’s decision to host the class discussion board on a server outside of the school network. It is her faith that anarchy will free their minds.
As Isabelle complains to her wife, Lee (Andrea Harris Smith), a tenured English professor and novelist, about overly cautious youth, fearful of engaging with ideas outside their comfort zone, the unmoderated message board becomes increasingly toxic. The board’s anonymity provides a “safe space” to spout racial and homophobic slurs without face-to-face consequences. With no explanation “Richard69” posts a video remixing scenes from D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation with the 2017 Unite the Right rally, and later he posts a gif juxtaposing contradictory ideas about racial integration from two different Spike Lee films. Safina (Tyasia Velines) takes that as an attack on her own multiracial background, but it’s only when a video of interracial lesbian porn is posted with a dedication to Isabelle that describes Lee with the N-word that Isabelle viscerally grasps that things are not right. Is Richard69 a white nationalist? A troll? A provocateur determined to demonstrate that utopian idealism does not work, that liberalism requires guardrails and guardians to protect it from illiberal forces? A single person? A collective?
Soon, students are anonymously filing grievances against Isabelle.
Though Yeung mines academic wit and undergraduate glibness for comedy, Theory is a tragedy in the Hegelian sense: a collision of irreconcilable ethical worldviews. Isabelle adheres to the liberal credo of academic freedom: No idea can be offensive to the intellect and the best ideas will always win out. But her utopia of free speech cannot handle being confronted with the cancel culture that advances the notion that some ideas and images are simply too harmful to encounter, even on a syllabus. Certainly some ideas are dangerous: Some of the film montages she teaches have provided powerful encouragement for ethnic cleansing or terrorism. Even the small compromises she is willing to make with reality cannot restore security. Her students, meanwhile, having grown up in a post-literate culture of memes and emojis, cannot grasp how one can critically separate form from content, emotions from a political stance.
Director Victoria Murray Baatin has a personal stake in this production, the American premiere of Theory, having worked with the Canadian Embassy to bring both the play and the playwright to Mosaic Theater Company, and her commitment to Yeung’s vision is evident.
Gurnis has skillfully crafted the physicality of a character who lives so much in her head. Isabelle is so enamored with her pedagogy in early scenes that she dances through her scene changes, but as her ideas are challenged, her gestures become increasingly disjointed and spastic. Smith gives a multi-dimensional performance as Lee, who must balance work on her novel with mentoring and nurturing her younger, brilliantly reckless spouse who has trouble planning a future or at least a date night together. Josh Adams puts in a cagily low-key performance as Richard, who, like all of the students, may or may not be Richard69, or a copycat.
Daniel Ettinger’s modernist revival set design elegantly integrates, and blurs the lines between, Isabelle’s classroom, office, and home, while also providing a fractured surface that resembles the onscreen desktop environment of multiple overlapping windows upon which projection designer Dylan Uremovich recreates the social media and video-mashup environment in which the characters are immersed.
Theory is one of the most intelligently provocative plays one is likely to see this season. It will resonate with anyone who has ever had to question their own allegiances and discomfort those who are too certain of themselves.
To Nov. 17 at 1333 H St. NE. $20–$60. (202) 399-7993. mosaictheater.org.