‘Up the Down Staircase’ Review


I was initially enamored by the idea of seeing a mid-1960s classic adapted to ASL in the first student production of the year. Up the Down Staircase depicts the saga of a freshly hired teacher, Sylvia Barrett, played by Lucia Proctor-Bonbright (’14), and her attempt to navigate a treacherous school plagued by unfortunate accidents, disinterested students and extremely overbearing administration members. Barrett is confronted with a mission that is impossible at first and extremely demoralizing, even to the extent where she interviews for another post.

The students of Calvin Coolidge High School have no interest in paying heed to Barrett’s lectures or demonstrating even the most basic gestures of respect, but her endless passion for teaching is evident as she attempts to persevere in the most difficult of teaching environments.

Barrett develops a relationship with one renegade thug of a student, Joe Ferone, played by David Cress (’13), and attempts to turn a moribund school into a respectable establishment. Proctor-Bonbright took the stage by storm with the lead role, and despite being tasked with such a difficult character, performed admirably.

It did not take long for me to realize that I was mistaken in my excitement for the play selection, as it was marred by a terrible script which featured incredibly artificial lines and inconsistencies. In particular, I was left extremely confused why the students were being taught English, discussing Macbeth and taking tests in their homeroom advisories. In addition, certain lines felt awkward and might have been best left out of the play entirely, such as a student who proclaimed “I am a minority,” which was meant to relay a serious tone but came off as a joke.

I was disappointed to see an open mocking of Harry Kagan, played by Colin Sears (’14). While it was clear that the production’s interpretation of Kagan was different from the book and the film, it became evident very quickly that this production’s Kagan was afflicted with some sort of mental disorder such as autism or Asperger’s Syndrome, and it was disheartening to see him used as comic relief for the audience. Social disorders are serious medical conditions and should not be used as a source of humor. The context and basis used to interpret the character were nothing short of offensive and I felt it detracted from the play significantly.

In addition, I felt there was a racial slight in the play that would be better left out. The one student who was evidently of Latin descent, Jose Rodriguez, played by Christian Nguyen (’16), alluded to the fact that he was homeless and was mocked by the other students. It was unclear if this type of profiling was part of the production and a blast from the 1960s-style humor or unintended, but I did feel as if it was present to clearly mock Latin Americans’ social status as inferior to that of Caucasians.

Many actors also seemed slightly confused and distracted periodically throughout the production, which may be a result of opening night jitters, but also seemed like inexperience and lack of proficiency with the script. Notable examples of this were when the students kept looking towards each other while walking backwards during one scene, as well as when actors took occasional breaks in character to reflexively smile at something in the audience.

Two actors in particular stood out as the brightest stars, and their performance alone, if nothing else, may warrant seeing the production over the next few days.

Cress was cast perfectly as Joe Ferone and lived up to the bill of a lead actor. His leadership on set was felt by everyone in the audience, his demeanor was perfect for the role and he projected his voice and demonstrated several refined techniques of an advanced actor. Cress’s interpretation was excellently executed, and his performance was emotionally riveting. It was very cold in the auditorium, but the goosebumps I received were legitimate. I say with little hesitation that, although I am aware plays are group efforts, Cress carried the cast in a captivating fashion, and pushed every button correctly. Cress was by far one of the strongest actors I have seen in any school production in my four years in the High School, through a handful of productions.

Perhaps miscast in a such a minor role with few lines, Emie Nathan (’15) absorbed the role of Linda Rosen with the utmost elegance and charm. Nathan’s acting skill is advanced and graceful, and at times even made me forget that I was watching a play. Though Nathan had few lines, each was executed to perfection and had a perfect tone and pitch for the “class beauty” role she was playing. Singlehandedly, Nathan’s work as a student in Barrett’s class sealed the deal and established a precedent of excellence for supporting characters in future productions. I am eager to see Nathan perform in the next production.

The play was not without its flaws, but was mildly entertaining and suspenseful at times. It was not the finest production the school has seen, but is definitely worth the inconvenient £6 admission fee. Pay special attention to the acting skills of Cress and Nathan, however, as those two were crucial in contributing to the overall success of the play. I eagerly await the next production and commend the work done by Director Buck Herron and the entire cast!