‘Academy Fight Song’ A Hilarious Look at Academia (4 Stars)

‘Academy Fight Song’ – Written by Andrew Clarke; Directed by Joe Antoun; Presented by Centastage at Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., Boston through Sept. 26.

I may not know much about life in the world of academia, but based on Centastage’s very funny production of playwright Andrew Clarke’s new work, it certainly appears to have many of the same unsavory elements as corporate life – minus the witty banter. Principles and ideals that sound convincing on the lips of a college professor or on a corporate mission statement all too often become meaningless when money, power and prestige (or just plain old desperation) show up on the doorstep, and that’s the current that runs through this entertaining and often hilarious one act.

Grizzled and cynical literary department chair Greer (the wonderfully comic Richard Snee) is being pressured by his superiors to have student and graphic novelist Jonathan appear at some academic conference – not necessarily on the basis of his talent, but because he is a social media darling and will create a lot of buzz for the college during his appearance (the particulars of this plot point are a little hazy). So he summons Davis (Craig Mathers), an underachieving writing teacher with a fondness for scotch and his female students, to try and coerce the wunderkind into attending the conference and making some sort of “J.D. Salinger” statement. Davis had been Jonathan’s professor and mentor of sorts, at least until he began living (and sleeping with) Davis’ wife.

Davis balks at the request until Greer extends the carrot – a five year teaching contract for the untenured professor – but only if he successfully completes the assignment. “Think of it as a business transaction, and you’ll be alright,” Greer assures him. He reluctantly accepts after a protracted discussion where we get a glimpse into the the practical realities of how institutions of higher learning make academic decisions, but we suspect that compromising his ethics and pride were probably fairly routine in Davis’ life by now. So off he goes to his former house (lost in the divorce), and the wooing begins.

The strength of this play is in the dialogue, which is consistently clever and biting. The exchanges between Davis and his ex-wife Liz are particularly good, not so much for their hilarity (of which there is plenty) but for their poignancy. Davis is a guy who, despite his considerable erudition, has never quite grown up. And with his raffish good looks and charm, it’s easy to see why he continues to get away with such loutish behavior – at least for short term. We also get to see why he’s stuck in a desperate career (and life) loop when he presents at the conference in the play’s most entertaining scene.

Mathers plays the part beautifully, and has the uncanny ability to appear at all times as if he is either on his way to a drunken bender or just coming off one. Liz is everything a grown up man would want – smart, beautiful, and practical with a fun side, which is precisely why she should probably run away from him. Tracy Oliverio is perfectly cast in the role, (which should come as no surprise given that she is playwright Clarke’s real-life wife) and she is a gem. Liz also delivers the play’s deepest cut when she tells Davis, “My days of being amused by your self-inflicted catastrophes are over,” although we’re still not sure whether he’ll pull off his loveable bad boy routine one more time.

Tyler Catanella is effective as the millennial rising star, but we don’t get a real look at his genius for writing, only his ability to play the career game better than his mentor at a much earlier stage. The transitions between scenes are accompanied by early 80’s punk tunes, including – you guessed it – “Academy Fight Song” by Boston band Mission of Burma. This is the world premiere for this work, and it’s a good take, particularly if you’re looking for a smart comedy.