REVIEW: Exit Strategy

A terrific production at Philadelphia Theatre Company of Ike Holter's new play is by turns energetic, optimistic, and bittersweet.

Aimé Donna Kelly, Michael Cullen, Rey Lucas, and Christina Nieves in Exit Strategy.

Aimé Donna Kelly, Michael Cullen, Rey Lucas, and Christina Nieves in Exit Strategy.

What’s a suitable next season for Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, following Murder House, Asylum, etc.? How about American Horror Story: High School?

I don’t mean the Lord of the Flies social culture, though that’s certainly a problem. What I’m thinking about here is institutional failure on a grand scale — crumbling buildings and infrastructure, overcrowded classrooms, under-challenged students and a curriculum that gets steadily smaller — all managed (barely) by an exhausted, poorly compensated work force.

Philadelphia continues to see more than its share of this crisis — that’s part of what makes Philadelphia Theatre Company’s choice to mount Ike Holter’s Exit Strategy such a smart one. Though the play is set in Holter’s native Chicago, the details here are frighteningly familiar.

As Exit Strategy starts, we are literally at the beginning of the end, the first day of what will be the last semester of a decrepit inner city high school. “Inner city,” of course, has a racial subtext, and Holter’s play does confront this with humor and point. But the bigger picture is, indeed, a bigger picture: the importance of salvaging education for any and all students who aren’t able to attend private or top-tier public schools.

The near-Herculean effort to address this is largely taken on here by a group of four younger teachers, aided by a tough but smart student. If the characters are sometimes drawn too broadly, in shorthand “types,” they are nonetheless winning. Actors Aimé Donna Kelly, Rey Lucas, Ryan Spahn and Christina Nieves give fine performances as the teachers; Brandon J. Pierce is an absolute knockout as the student.

Though Holter’s playwrighting voice is distinctively his, there’s a bit of Aaron Sorkin in the thrust-and-parry word play, with every character achieving implausibly virtuosic feats of articulation — and also some Sorkin in the against-all-odds optimism they wield. But there’s nothing wrong with optimism, and Exit Strategy is immensely enjoyable for all those same, Sorkin-esque reasons. There’s a wide range of tone here — from raw desolation to high comedy, and Holter manages it masterfully. He’s especially skillful at orchestrating large conversations. (And any writer who correctly uses “enormity” wins points from me!) Director Kip Fagan’s production is terrific.

Yet the bittersweet heart of Exit Strategy — and Holter’s best writing — belong to the older generation, veteran teachers Pam and Arnold (here in wonderfully authentic performances by Deirdre Madigan and Michael Cullen). Pam is sarcastic and angry; Arnold is bone-weary. Individually and together, they gave their blood, sweat and tears to the school and its students — until there was nothing left.

God bless the Arnolds and Pams of the world — every last one of them.

Exit Strategy runs through February 28. For more information, visit Philadelphia Theatre Company’s website.