It's an interesting idea, even if it has been done before - an idealistic young teacher takes his first job in a slum-ghetto school only to find all the things he'd been taught about teaching were worthless, his fellow teachers have become cynics, and the disillusioned principal is struggling just to keep the school doors open.
But there is one student who shows promise, and the teacher focuses on him. Their story is played out in "Stand-Up Tragedy," which opened last night at the Criterion Center.
Set in a small Catholic school for Hispanic boys on the lower East Side over two semesters, it may be the first play set to a rap beat.
Outside the building are drug dealers, hookers, alcoholics and pimps, and the kids home situations are, as a teacher puts it, "intolerable." Whether the street-smart kids are learning anything to fit them for the future is problematic. Yet, the school is a sort of home, and they show up each day.
Tom Griffin (Jack Coleman) arrives fresh out of college, defying his family who want him to become a lawyer. In his class is Lee (Marcus Chong), who has artistic talent, a drunken mother and a brutal brother.
He defies his family by dreaming of medieval times and drawing pictures of his dreams. He raps about his life, acting out the roles of his family, when, to the dismay of the principal, Griffin takes him in hand and turns his head around. But sooner or later, he must go back to his family - and tragedy.
There is some wonderful dialogue in the play, most of it delivered by the principal-priest (Charles Cioffi).
At one point he says sadly, "The kids in this school are the only kids I'll ever have. And I only have them for a few years. I don't like the way God treats them. God saved the world by killing his only son. If a parent did that in this neighborhood, I'd call the cops on him."
Chong is excellent as the young boy, vulnerable and introspective, imitating his mother in the musical portions, capturing street rhythms beautifully. Coleman does well by his somewhat stereotyped role, and Cioffi is believable as the principal.
Ron Link directed this piece with a rapid street rhythm, though at times this worked against it - so much movement during spoken pieces made them inaudible at times.
The new Broadway season is off and running to a terrific start. Its first play arrived at the Criterion Center last night and, in an oddball, slightly pretentious, slightly simplistic, yet almost literal fashion, it proves a stunner.
Called "Stand-Up Tragedy" and set in a small Catholic school for Hispanic boys on the Lower East Side, it seeks to bring us up to date on the present status of that old blackboard jungle, and if at times the writing and approach come close to suggesting a somewhat facile blackboard jingle, this is a small price to pay for a play that is as timely as a time-bomb and as vivid and pressing as this morning's news headlines.
The playwright, Bill Cain, apparently taught language arts and reading at just such a school for four years - before that, he spent seven years as artistic director of the Boston Shakespeare Company! - and he clearly has paid his dues, knows the territory and has felt the anguish.
This play is evidently wrenched out of experience rather than wrought out of research, and the immediacy of Cain's story together with the authenticity of its very fabric jumps up at you from the stage.
The play - with the same director, Ron Link, and many of the same leading actors - started life at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and continued on to the Hartford Stage Company. And now it has resoundingly come home to New York. It is not an easy play. The students are glittering louts, and the teachers are a bunch of cynical idealists, cynically idealized even if convincingly observed.
As for those kids, these are not Hollywood's angels with dirty faces, or even the urchin-poetic dancing boys who taunted Officer Krupke in "West Side Story" - these are the stuff of a far grainier and grimier docudrama. Yet the style of "Stand-Up Tragedy" is somewhere between that docudrama of urban blight, a comic book and a rap video.
The school is run by Father Ed Larkin (Charles Cioffi), a tough, non-illusioned, humanely callous priest who hides his pain, frustration and doubts under a hard shell of bluster, blasphemy, flippancy and profanity. He talks and acts like a street person - because he has had to become a street person.
His slick cynicism (a slickness that also characterizes Cain's writing, even typified by the very title "Stand-Up Tragedy") can be demonstrated by his canny way of referring to Christmas as "basically the story of a bizarre teenage pregnancy," or his tough-egg, but affectionate, description of his faculty as "living proof that an education doesn't get you anywhere."
Such movie priests as Bing Crosby or even Pat O'Brien would turn round in their dog-collars at such irreverence. But Father Ed's soul is in the right place, and his theory of the "ecology of evil" where no good deed can go unpunished which disturbs the balance of evil forces in our city ghettos, does make sadly hard-headed sense.
His view contrasts the dire consequences of minor, cosmetic improvements with those comparative benefits, failing a new economic order, deriving from a benign neglect coupled with missionary zeal.
Into this violent scholastic scene arrives a new teacher, Tom Griffin (Jack Coleman), bearing that particular white middle class burden of being heavily "involved in Third World debt." Griffin - mythologically "half-lion and half-eagle" - tries to rescue one talented kid, Lee Cortez (Marcus Chong), from the ghetto world, including his family of his mother and elder brother, threatening to engulf him.
The attempt is gallant - possibly stupid, but gallant - and provides the ostensible subject for the play, as well as the opportunity for Coleman and Chong to offer splendidly unbuttoned virtuoso performances.
But the real subject, the subtext that covers everything, from the graveyard humor and sardonic philosophy, to the actual events at this school of the damned, is the lesson of the ghetto itself, the harshness of living and dying in a reality of hopelessness.
Helped by Yael Pardess' attractive and usefully appropriate setting, Carol Brolaski's tellingly apt costumes, and the vivid rap choreography of Charles Randolph Wright, Link's staging takes on an exceptionally vibrant life of its own that forcefully projects the play.
And the performances are superb. Chong, Cioffi and Colema - particularly Chong, who for much of the play is impersonating his entire family - have the best chances and make the most of them, but no one, including John C. Cooke and Dan Gerrity as two of the teachers, and Ray Oriel as a kid with a fantastic potential for drop-out, puts an accent, action or even thought wrong.
The flaws of the play are all too evident - it is too smart and too superficial by half. Yet its qualities of immediacy and relevance, dusted off with a glitter of sheer damned theatricality, make it a play impossible to ignore and a play very much to be seen, and seen now while its temperature and climate are both white-hot.
Act I of ''Stand-Up Tragedy,'' the new play by Bill Cain at the Criterion Center, is labeled ''First Semester'' in the Playbill. Act II is ''Second Semester.'' Make no mistake about it: The audience is in school, and there's no use praying for early dismissal.
The school in question is a small Roman Catholic institution for Hispanic boys on the present-day Lower East Side. The lesson Mr. Cain wishes to impart is sadly perennial: the impotence of inner-city schools in their front-line battle to rescue young lives from the ravages of poverty, absent and abusive parents and drugs. Who would doubt that the crisis in urban education is the most pressing American tragedy? That makes it all the more painful to report that ''Stand-Up Tragedy'' - whether viewed as a serious effort to illuminate its issues or merely as pop entertainment with a conscience - is so often a farce.
The author, who himself taught at a school like the one in his play, is obviously sincere in his frustration. The story he tells, however familiar from fiction, is presumably drawn from first-hand experience: The only faculty member hip enough to wear Nikes, a Georgetown-educated yuppie named Tom Griffin (Jack Coleman), sets out to salvage an unexpectedly gifted student, Lee Cortez (Marcus Chong), who might otherwise be devoured by his violent family or lost in the housing-project maze or the educational morass. Yet Mr. Cain never takes this premise or its characters any further than the archetypal tableaux that have been served up with far more vigor in works as various as ''Blackboard Jungle,'' ''Up the Down Staircase,'' ''To Sir With Love,'' ''Open Admissions'' and even ''Room 222.'' At a time when authors like Diane Ravitch and Samuel G. Freedman, among others, are prominently examining the same classrooms seen in this play, seeking to learn from their small victories and big defeats, Mr. Cain merely restates the obvious, parading the familiar symptoms of a social calamity before the audience without offering any diagnosis or, at the very least, fresh observations. Rather than risk offending anyone by raising any controversial questions about the church's exact educational role in a city riddled by AIDS and racism, he settles instead for the middlebrow theater's sentimental boilerplate of moral concern, as typified by a monologue in which the school's presiding priest (Charles Cioffi) argues his students' need for ''a better God.'' (Not for nothing does this play share an originating theater, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, with ''Children of a Lesser God.'') Finally Mr. Cain just throws up his hands in despair, disposing of as many characters as possible in a denouement that, for all its tragic pretensions, proves laughably melodramatic.
Were it not for the stylization of the writing and Ron Link's production, ''Stand-Up Tragedy'' would merely be another innocuously topical television movie that had somehow strayed onto a Broadway stage. But the gimmickry of the script, which attempts to appropriate the hard-edged styles of both stand-up comedy and rap music, and the noisy busyness of the staging, in which synthetic rap numbers and gruntingly gymnastic choral recitations are punctuated by the incessant banging of lockers and ringing of school bells, do succeed in insinuating ''Stand-Up Tragedy'' into a theatergoer's mind - if not as an intellectual or emotional stimulant, then as the relentless source of a throbbing headache.
''Stand-Up Tragedy'' lowers the volume of its assault only when some of its actors, most notably Mr. Cioffi, wait for laughter at the end of a punch line. Unfortunately, Mr. Cain just isn't a witty enough writer to score with the teachers-lounge wisecracks he uses to avoid an actual dramatization of what happens in his play's school. The gags, like the frequently inaudible and always white-bread rap lyrics, are filler.
An even more irritating jokeyness is injected by the arbitrary assignment of multiple roles to the principal actors. Mr. Chong, a promising performer in need of editing and direction, is asked to interrupt and compromise his portrayal of the sensitive Lee by repeatedly impersonating Lee's mother in a manner more appropriate to a ''Forbidden Broadway'' spoof of Rita Moreno. Mr. Coleman, an ingratiating figure as the earnest teacher, is in turn asked to adopt an embarrassingly ersatz Hispanic accent to impersonate Lee's brother - even as Mr. Chong sometimes plays Lee's brother, too, in tandem. This is theatricality, I guess, but other than providing acting exercises for an enthusiastic young cast, what goal does it serve?
A cynic might assume that the real point of the awkward and confusing piggybacking of roles is to save money on actors, but if so, the economies have not extended to the employment of two black performers who, though costumed as students and always used in the rap routines, remain patronizingly undifferentiated as characters throughout. It's rather bizarre to find a contemporary slice-of-life high school drama emulating a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland vehicle of yesteryear by padding the class with faceless chorus boys. But once they and other members of the all-male cast gratuitously start stripping to the waist late in Act II, one can at least relax in the happy knowledge that the school in ''Stand-Up Tragedy'' is finally adjourning for summer camp.