‘Greater Good’ puts theater-goers in the story

Rachel Cognata, Brooks Reeves and Becca A. Lewis in “Greater Good.” Photo: by Natasha Moustache

BOSTON – You don’t get much closer to live theater than you do in Company One and American Repertory Theatre’s world premiere production of “Greater Good,” Kirsten Greenidge’s immersive, interactive, and often fascinating look at how various elements within a small private school failed both the students and the school’s  educational mission.

This is a site-specific production, a play built to be performed in a specific space, to wit The Commonwealth School, a 150-student, small private school for Grades 9-12 in the Back Bay. It takes place on several different floors of the building and requires a good deal of walking up and down stairs, but there is an elevator available to assist.

Acclaimed playwright Greenidge, who has developed works for Company One (“Splendor” and “Grimm”), Huntington Theater Company (“Luck of the Irish” and “Milk Like Sugar) and New Rep (“Baltimore”) has been the artist at residence at Company One, where she helps run the company’s playwriting program.

“Greater Good” is about the Gleason Street School, a kindergarten-Grade 8 private school in the Boston area that is high-minded, progressive, forward-thinking, but not always mindful of another important aspect of the operation:  The bottom line

The play begins with a parents’ council meeting and then moves backward in time to a key event in the previous school year involving a woman named Ann, who is never seen; the students are also unseen.  

In scenes staged in various rooms of the school, we can see the machinations of various elements in the institution that combine to let down the clients – in this case, the students of the school.

Rejine Murchison and Dev Blair in “Greater Good: Photo by Natasha Moustache.

There is little doubt from the start what the final outcome will be. Those attending each performance are broken into three groups, each one escorted by a “real estate agent” charged with giving your group a tour of the building, should you want to make a bid on the property somewhere along the way.

Each stop on the tour will actually be an episode or event that happened in the room, part of the interlocking puzzle that explains why the school failed.

The most challenging and complex logistics involve moving three different groups up and down several flights of stairs. “Greater Good” checks in at about three hours with no intermission

Th piece begins and ends in a basement gym/meeting room where members of the school’s  parents’ council have gathered for an important meeting.

They quickly get mucked up in a morass of rules and policies there is  not getting around issues of race and class as the parents approach the school’s problems from their own unique viewpoint.

 A subtle – and often not-so-subtle — game of one-upsmanship is underway, even as important issues go unspoken or are glossed over.

Those sitting down at the table are a diverse lot, including a quartet of minority voices.  Wealthy video game designer Michael (Dominic Carter) comes in swearing at the city traffic; he can be impatient and petulant, qualities that he says didn’t not serve him well during his schooling.

Adams (Shahjehan Khan) has financial acumen and information he’s trying to share about the school’s financial state, but is constantly frustrated.

Kim (Blyss Cleveland)  is of a privileged class but doesn’t feel the need to flaunt it while newcomer Christine (Rachel Cognata) is very cognitive of being new and the fact her son is on scholarship.

Val (Christine Power) doesn’t miss any chance to put herself above the rest, from her banana bread to die for to her casually-dropped comment about her son at Brown.

Fern (Becca A. Lewis) is another not on the same financial strata as the others, and the thought of spending, for instance, $300 for a tent for the Grade 4 camping trip distresses her.

Greenidge also has some fun with educational tropes when a latecomer to the meeting is third-generation head of school Gordon (Brooks Reeves), who manages to speak a lot  without actually saying anything as the school’s beleaguered leader. He avoids having to talk the dreaded “m word” – money – or getting drowned in financial spreadsheets. He attributes much of the school’s problems to “that damn logo” prominently featured in ads and materials.  

And, being a new work, some of the segments are more effective than others. One particularly effective scene has Michael and Adams going through items left behind after the closing of the school. Later, we will asked to play the xylophone with Gordon, who talks about “The seeds” of education, or do simple arts and crafts.

A subplot that takes place as we and the players and theater-goers  journey through the school involves an idealistic teacher named Isa (Raijene Murchison) struggling to stay true to the mission while chaos reigns and a trans teacher named Kyle (Dev Blair) seeking the respect – and pay – shown to other teachers.

Finally, all three groups will meet again with the parents’ council in the basement of the school.

Greenidge is also concerned with the rickety state of our democracy. parents’ council paralyzes itself with its process, policy and procedures, so the group cannot muster the will to get something done that might have changed the school’s fate.

Director Steven Bogart has a good handle on the portrayals, the pacing and the logistics of the piece, which could quickly run off the rails if the timing wasn’t just right. He makes good use of the various spaces in the school, with effective set design by Cristine Todesco. In many of the rooms what seems to be random scraps of paper or simple trash actually are serving a strong purpose, if you stop and examine them.

The end result is exciting new work that allows theater-goers to experience a story up-close and in the moment, and a work that asks questions about the educational mission, and whether we just might be drowning our democracy under a pile of policies and paperwork.

 “Greater Good” by Kirsten Greenidge. Directed by Steven Bogart. Dramaturgy by Ilana M. Brownstein. Presented by Company One Theatre in collaboration with American Repertory Theater through Aug. 17 at Commonwealth School, Boston. Tickets $25-$45, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org

Members of the audience watch Blyss Cleveland and “tour guide” Eli Troen in “Greater Good.” Photo: Natasha Moustache