Shirley Lauro's "Open Admissions," last night's drama at the Music Box, is said to be an expanded version of a playlet by the same author that was seen Off Off Broadway a couple of seasons ago. And it's clear to discern that source in the play's brief, punchy, heated second act. While the long and dispersed first one has its high spots, moments of which may have had their place in the original, the author is mostly marking time in this act, seemingly as uncertain of her course as is her scatterbrained heroine.
Though the play's title and ostensible theme have to do with the injustices imposed on students and teachers alike in the open-admissions policy adopted by many colleges over the past couple of decades, it is essentially the story of how a sensitive teacher comes to devote her attention to a bright, but ignorant student. In this respect, the situation is akin to that in "The Corn is Green," and, in a more extreme though still related sense, the one in "The Miracle Worker." The difference is that the teacher doesn't give herself over to the boy's cause until the very end.
As the curtain rises, we look in on the rather mean white household of teacher Ginny Carlsen (Marilyn Rockafellow) her dissolute gambler of a husband Peter (Kevin Tighe) and their child daughter (Maura Erin Sullivan) and, alongside it, the even meaner black household consisting of the student, Calvin Jefferson (Calvin Levels), his sister, Salina (Nan-Lynn Nelson) and the latter's child daughter, Georgia (Pam Potillo). With those households and their problems revealed, the curtain rises higher on the increasingly ugly set to change the set into two levels of the "ghetto" college in which Ginny dashes from class to class, with little time to devote to individual students, while Calvin chases after her for help. Though he is an all-B student, his skills are actually on a par with those of a fifth-grade elementary school student. The open-admissions system has advanced him to college, and may very well send him out with a degree, but with no learning.
The only relief in this frantic, scattered and rather dismal act is to be found in a reading class where students are called upon to analyze, identify with, and deliver speeches by various Shakespearean characters. Though Vincent D'Onofrio is amusing as a street-tough Italian boy doing Petruchio, neither he nor the Chinese Girl nor the Hispanic youth taking part in this sequence quite deserved the roars, snickers, giggles and assorted laugh-track effects produced by the claque at the back of the house. Fortunately, these merrymakers were silent during the dramatic household scenes and during that taut second act.
Though the problems arising from the open-admissions policy are clearly stated, Calvin's personal problem (with all that almost-comic scurrying about ) seemed somewhat unconvincing, and there were moments in Levels' performance, fine as it was in most respects, when I felt the actor wasn't fully sold on the part, either, though part of this may have been due to Elinor Renfield's otherwise keen direction. Entirely unconvincing was the marital situation involving Ginny, Peter and their daughter.
One good, tough scene between Calvin and his sister went too far with his dangerously violent outburst, though the staging here, too, could have been improved. And the playwright's use of "black" talk, an important issue in the work as a whole, didn't ring completely true.
Rockafellow, as the teacher filled with school jargon on the order of "defective communicator's image" and "substandard urban speech," gives an effective account of the distraught, emotionally strung out Ginny, though I found it curious that while she could pronounce Christian Dior properly, she couldn't do the same for Roosevelt.
Sloane Shelton contributes a nice bit as a smug prof more interested in renting summer space in her and her husband's Sag Harbor house than in advancing the cause of learning. And Tighe is believable as Ginny's mate who would much rather lay his, or her, money on the outcome of a Lakers' game than look for honest work.
Having survived the distractions of that lengthy first act, we get the needed jolt in the remarkably short second one. But that was all we needed - not enough for an evening's entertainment, to be sure, but seen to best advantage on its own.
There was a time when the Broadway theater was alive with social problems, or at least alive to social problems. Those days are past.
However we had a twinging reminder of Broadway's social conscience last night when Shirley Lauro's play Open Admissions arrived at the Music Box Theater.
The play originated as a brief one-acter of the same name, given a few years ago by the Ensemble Studio Theater. This was a little nugget of a play - a confrontation between a bewildered black student and a harrassed white teacher.
It centered on his inability to keep up with the college courses offered him by the government's "open admissions" school policy of guaranteeing a college education to all high school graduates.
The subject of subeducation with inferior verbal skills is vital, and is a problem that tends to be too easily brushed behind the blackboard. In Miss Lauro's original play it emerged with both passion and poignancy.
The passion and poignancy are still to be fleetingly found in this new, stretched version of the play. But Open Admissions is the thinner for its stretching.
Originally the play was a head-on clash between Ginny, a speech teacher, and Calvin, a ghetto kid who lacks basic linguistic skills.
They are both victims of a system - she simply has to push students through some kind of curriculum, fully aware that it is beyond them; he is one of those being pushed. So much, so simple. So powerful.
Now the play has been diluted. That powerful confrontation is still its nub. But both the middle-class teacher, Ginny, and the ghetto pupil, Calvin, have been provided with dramatic backgrounds.
Ginny has a gambling wastrel of a husband, and the responsibility of a daughter. Calvin has a sister, a niece and a past record of violence. Ginny supports her family; Calvin is the hope of his.
And here they both are - neatly together at their points of breakdown. But even this cannot fill the play. So the playwright adds a series of revue-style sketches, quite amusing in themselves, but basically inappropriate.
Here pupils, one Korean, one Italian, one Hispanic and one black, flounder their way through a Shakespearean speech. It is cheap humor, at best, and, apart from ethnic colorings, each sketch is like the other. Even the joke goes on too long.
The real pity is that what Miss Lauro still has now, she already had at the beginning, and what she added is merely padding. The play's expansion was a bad idea gone wrong.
It could perhaps have been made into a film script and doubtless will be as it is being co-produced on Broadway by Universal Pictures.
The staging, by Elinor Renfield, staggers as much as they play under the burden of expansion. The new scenes themselves are too short and too cursory, even too cinematically inclined, to be viably stageworthy, and the shabby-looking production sags at all possible places.
There are, however, two still splendid performances, Calvin Levels as the embittered student and Marilyn Rockafellow as the pusillanimous teacher.
Miss Lauro should have left well enough alone...she had a good little play, but you can't make a townhouse out of even the best-appointed country cottage. You have to build something new, and Miss Lauro has the basic talent to do just that.
For all that's shaky about ''Open Admissions,'' the new play at the Music Box, there's no denying its power to shake an audience. Shirley Lauro's drama is a rarity for Broadway these days: It thrusts us onto the front line of an agonizing contemporary social crisis and refuses to show us the easy way out. Though Mrs. Lauro tells of the conflict between a white woman teacher and a black male student in a public New York college, she refuses to present the usual blacks and whites in either the racial or moral sense. Both her characters are decent people; both are casualties on a battleground that neither of them has made.
That battleground was created by well-meaning social planners: The play's setting is a school whose open admissions policy allows all applicants a crack at higher education and a better life. Or so went the theory. In ''Open Admissions,'' the college is a dilapidated factory that merely shuffles its poor students through four years of overcrowded and undertaught classes - then pushes them out the door with a worthless diploma. Far from giving its underprivileged students a fresh start, the college only raises false expectations. The school's promised ticket to the middle-class is but a round-trip excursion leading right back to the ghetto.
Calvin, the student of ''Open Admissions,'' is a young man who challenges the system. Realizing that the school will never give him the skills to escape his legacy of poverty and foster homes, he decides to demand an education. ''I can make something out of myself if I'm given a chance,'' he cries to Ginny Carlsen, his teacher in a placebo course called Speech Communications. But what is Ginny to do? Calvin reads at a fifth-grade level and is only one of dozens of students who drift through her jammed classrooms. She has no time for office hours, let alone to provide individual tutoring, and instead tries to placate Calvin with passing grades, vague compliments about the ''steady improvement'' of his ''substandard urban speech'' and bland advice about ''building a positive image.''
Yet Calvin won't give up. In the scenes that close both acts of ''Open Admissions,'' he ambushes Ginny in her threadbare office and screams for learning as if his life were at stake - as indeed it is. It's a rending spectacle. Calvin Levels, the dynamic actor who plays the student, will do anything to be saved: He smashes against file cabinets to intimidate the teacher, then collapses to the floor in pitiful supplication. Marilyn Rockafellow's Ginny - by no means an insensitive woman - is just as authentic and forlorn: Once Calvin refuses to accept her excuses for not helping (''I'm one person in one job''), we see her steadily confront the realization that the school dehumanizes its teachers as much as its students. As she admits to Calvin, ''If you're worth an 'F,' so am I.''
These two scenes - as written, acted and galvanically directed by Elinor Renfield - are so upsetting that they overshadow almost everything else in ''Open Admissions.'' Once upon a time, they were essentially the entire play. In its original one-act incarnation at Off Broadway's Ensemble Studio Theater, ''Open Admissions'' gave us only Mr. Levels and Miss Rockafellow battling at an excruciating pitch. In expanding her drama for Broadway, Mrs. Lauro has added nine other characters and brought the domestic lives of her two antagonists on stage.
Sad to say, many of the new characters are perfunctorily drawn types who might better have been left to the imagination; many of the new scenes involve melodramatic plot twists or exposition-padded phone calls. We now learn that Ginny has a drunken gambler of a husband (Kevin Tighe) and that Calvin releases his frustration by battering the niece (Pam Potillo) who shares his Harlem coldwater flat. We also meet too many of Ginny's other unfortunate students and a caricatured faculty cynic (Sloane Shelton) who would rather preserve her pension and bureaucratic fiefdom than question the school's bankrupt status quo.
There are, however, a few instances when Mrs. Lauro's additions add something other than running time. When Calvin's sister (beautifully acted by Nan-Lynn Nelson) describes her job cleaning hotel bathrooms - a job that supports her brother's education - we get a heroic account of a black family's solidarity and fortitude under impossible circumstances. Ginny's marital crises, contrived as they are, also pay off in a bracing scene in which the teacher at last admits that her own dreams of upward mobility are as doomed and self-deluding as Calvin's. Abandoning her hopes of ever escaping to a fancier academic job in New England, the teacher declares herself ''a ghetto teacher'' for life - and, as she does, we realize that it's no coincidence that David Gropman's grim, prison-like set renders her Upper West Side apartment as desolately as Calvin's slum rathole.
Even though the flattest of the added scenes cripple much of Act I, they do not rob the play's central conflict of its force. Whenever the superb lead actors square off in their tumultuous, no-win battle, ''Open Admissions'' transcends the formulas of the television problem dramas it can otherwise resemble. And though Mrs. Lauro has no pat, magic solutions for the deadlock she presents, neither is she without hope. Ginny and Calvin may learn little else at their college, but, by the evening's wrenching conclusion, they've learned the most important lesson of all: With courage, the fight for a just world can begin with two lost people banding together to save each other in a shabby and forgotten room.