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'Schooled' in Screenwriting and Seduction

Lisa Lewis’ dynamic new play captures the tensions and scheming of an NYC film school.

Photos by Andrea Reese

“You think he gave me his nomination because I flirted a little? Welcome to being a woman in film.”

For Claire Freeman, this last semester at film school might be a dream come true. She is taking class with her favorite professor, whose thriller movies she grew up watching, and under his tutelage her semi-autobiographical screenplay about her gambling addict father is taking shape to be submitted for a major production grant. Meanwhile, she is preparing to move in with boyfriend and fellow student Jake and beginning to plan their future together.

Of course, things are never that simple. It quickly becomes clear, when her teacher Andrew invites Claire to a bar for their first feedback session on her script, that the married 50-year-old is interested in more than just her writing. But in between the drinking too much and the uncomfortably intimate touching, his critiques are good, and more than that, Claire needs Andrew’s nomination if she has any hope of winning the grant to make her film. And so she plays the game.

Lisa Lewis’ Schooled perfectly captures the veneer of awkwardness of professor-student interactions in an intimate arts environment, from what names you call each other to how honest you can be about your intentions. For a while, it is so easy to be on Andrew's side, to believe that beneath the drinking and the desire to feel younger than he is lurks true genius and that he truly cares about Claire. It is only when Claire gets in well over her head that we discover how wrong that is.

It is certainly easier to believe in Andrew than in "A-game schmoozer" Jake, whose first moments on stage involve him interrupting Claire and Andrew's conversation to advocate for his own career path, literally blocking his girlfriend out of the discussion. In Jake's sphere, Claire must navigate the world of wealth and privilege that comes with his upper-class Manhattanite background, but even as that colors her perception of him, the focus of the play remains on the work, and what it takes to succeed in film.

But just how aware is everyone of what they and the others are doing when they play the system, scheming to come out on top? Each dialogue between a pair of characters adds something new to the story that they have been withholding from the third, whether it's Claire's true feelings about Andrew's script or Andrew letting Jake in on which stories he told Claire aren't actually true. And of course, when Andrew insists that Jake should move to LA to try his luck as a screenwriter there, we know from his interactions with Claire that it's an insult.

Such zingers are common in this laser-sharp script, full of snarky, cynical dialogue and characters who feel the need to perform their intelligence at all times. Yet even with this focus on the writing, Schooled is more than just a smart script. All three actors do a stellar job bringing these intense characters to life with all their flaws, from awkward, over-caffeinated Claire (Lilli Stein) to Andrew's (Quentin Maré) deep-seated insecurity and addiction and Jake's (Stephen Friedrich) lack of respect for anyone but himself.

Even the set, constrained to simple items that can be easily removed between shows like any other Fringe performance, exhibits further thematic implications. There is Andrew's office, Claire's dorm room bed and, in the center, the bar where they meet, but the action is never confined to the small sphere around its literal setting. Instead, when Claire is thinking about her career and writing, she tends to veer into Andrew's office, whereas more intimate conversations occur in the space between the bar where she meets with her teacher and her bedroom. With such clever staging by director James Kautz, it is clear that all three worlds are present at all times.

Schooled refrains from making a clear moral judgment about which path is the better one: playing the Hollywood game, or being true to yourself and funding your art film through Kickstarter. (If there's any moral at all to this play, it's Don't go to film school.) But just as Claire's talent as a writer is never in question, though her insistence on a two-page-long voiceover hints that she is probably not the best, the play is perhaps stronger for not requiring a universal answer for what Claire should have done. Instead, it's all about the journey.

Schooled plays at the Robert Moss Theater as part of the New York International Fringe Festival through August 27.

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