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Head of the Class 

A drama about a rich teen rapist feels surprisingly like everyday life

Wednesday, Jan 28 2004
No. 11 (Blue and White) sounds like the title of a strange experiment. You expect oblique dialogue, angular movement, maybe an abstract video on the wall. You don't expect a compelling high school sexual drama. The "No. 11" in Alexandra Cunningham's title refers to the jersey of a popular senior and lacrosse star at an East Coast prep school. Reid Callahan is a tall, handsome, pampered athlete admired by his friends and desired by almost every girl. He's also a brutal rapist.

No. 11 premiered at the 1999-2000 Humana Festival in Louisville, Ky., played off-Broadway in 2002, and comes to San Francisco from Sonoma State University, where director Paul Draper mounted this production last year with a talented group of students. Parts of the show feel young -- the students tend to imitate, rather than understand, their characters -- but the surprise is how often Brian Mackey, as Reid, along with Kelly Rose Anderson and Catherine Morse, as his victims, rise to the demands of Cunningham's difficult script.

Act 1 sets up a natural respect among audience members for Reid, especially as he's played by Mackey. Compared to his semi-obnoxious friends -- the smirking preppy Brian, the scruffy pothead Danny -- Reid behaves like a prince, even if he does seem a bit spoiled. Mackey is perfect for the role because he looks so reasonable. Reid's ex-girlfriend and main confidante Alex (Kelly Campbell) foreshadows a crime by telling the audience, at the beginning: "As soon as people hear where I went to school, they ask, 'Did you know him?'" But we can't imagine she means Reid.

Anderson and Morse play Lindsay and Tammy, respectively. Lindsay is a virginal friend-of-a-friend of Reid's who needs a ride home from a party. Reid, like a gentleman, obliges, but parks his borrowed Jeep near a neighborhood curb and rapes her in the back seat. There's no question about what happened: You'll read elsewhere that No. 11 deals with "date rape," but that doesn't begin to describe Reid's violence.

Tammy's case is more ambiguous, be-cause she once tried to ask Reid to a sleepover behind his girlfriend's back. She's a flirt, a husky-voiced party girl. Her rape is no less violent or sudden than Lindsay's, but in the minds of Reid's friends, she asked for it. Soon the school "in"-crowd closes in on both girls for daring to smear their image of a clean-cut, decent guy.

Morse plays Tammy with a tough edge; Anderson, as Lindsay, seems modest and sweet. But both characters crumble with affecting pathos in monologues to their invisible parents. "You're always saying that!" says Lindsay. "About 'what passes for a date these days' and 'what you girls let them get away with.' ... I know, I'll try not to put up with it. Goodnight." The monologues reveal a detail at a time, and they require not only emotional commitment from the actors but also enormous self-control. They could easily turn maudlin, but in Morse's and Anderson's hands they don't.

Pamela Walker (a professional actor, not a student) does excellent work as Reid's mother Suzanne, especially when Suzanne has to ask Reid what he's cleaning out of the Jeep. "If that's blood on your shirt," she says, not wanting to believe her own eyes, "you can clean it yourself." Kelly Campbell improves over two hours as Alex, who comes to realize that the rape charges against her ex-boyfriend might be true. Campbell starts with too much enthusiasm, but finds a natural rhythm for Alex's overbearing personality.

The script is flawed; Cunningham crams a ton of characters and a half-dozen gloomy revelations into act one, then lets act two drift. (It's built more like a novel than a play.) A long speech by the pothead Danny, drawing parallels between rape and American foreign policy, also has problems. But the essence of No. 11 excavates the dark side of a popular jock, and shows -- harrowingly -- how a group of parents and friends will protect him. It's a story of denial in a very American mode, and it looks less like a funny experiment than like everyday life.


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