SALT LAKE CITY- In 2007, writer T.J. Brady heard an NPR story about former dean of admissions at MIT Marilee Jones and the scandal surrounding the revelation that she had falsified university degrees in order to enhance her qualifications. This shocking story inspired Brady (a television writer and producer known for his work on Army Wives, The 100, and Lie to Me) to draft Two Dollar Bill, currently in its world premiere at Pioneer Theatre Company. This dramatization set in the present day about an Ivy League professor that is forced to confront a misrepresentation from his past asks some truly provocative questions about moral and ethical responsibility, the role of higher education, institutional bias, and the problem of entitled youth.
Bill Dudley (played stoically by Mark Zimmerman) is a highly admired professor of military history at a prestigious and revered university. He is master of his domain—the lecture hall where he captures the hearts and minds of his students, the department which he chairs, the ready-to-jump doctoral student who is his teaching/personal assistant. He even has other experts in the field asking his opinion on book drafts. Of course, this powerful and successful man is deeply flawed, as indicated by the repeated phone calls from the dean and his daughter, which he ducks for the first 15 minutes of the play. Rather than address what appears to be a serious summons from the dean, Dudley spars with his teaching assistant, Ron, about great military heroes and the habits of West Point instilled in Ron to make him diametrically opposed in temperament to the seasoned Professor Dudley.
Ron (played admirably by Corey Allen) is a veteran, a young man with a strong moral compass, and a student who has worked very hard to get where he is. He is also a young man of color, a fact that is forcefully pointed out by another student after Ron accuses her of plagiarism on a paper for Dudley’s class. Megan (Ephie Aardema) is an undergraduate student and the walking embodiment of Millennial entitlement and white privilege. When confronted about her plagiarized work (discovered by the ever diligent Ron), Megan makes the plea for another chance by claiming she didn’t know she was doing something wrong, the need to maintain her GPA, and the fact that elite programs don’t have “quotas” for people like her. When Dudley provides Megan with a second chance, the already opposite Dudley and Ron are set at moral odds. When the Dean finally catches up with Dudley, we discover that there is a problem concerning the professor’s academic credentials which threatens everything from his career to his marriage.
The text commendably sets out to explore the problems of the American educational system by creating a “snapshot” of one professor and the consequences of a long ago choice. Unfortunately, “explore” is not a strong enough verb to move the dramatic action of the shallow plot. I felt that there were too many questions being asked without enough focus on the purpose of any of them. Can one man change a system? How do we measure and value “qualified” in our society? What is the difference between a lie and an untruth? Should a mistake from the past cost someone their present? Are diversity quotas needed? Do they provide access to or inhibit success? Is a university degree a pathway to knowledge, or just a means to an end for financial success? All of these questions were touched on, but not really engaged.
The story line played out like TV melodrama, leaving any true plot resolution for the next episode. Whether it was the fault of the script structure or what I perceived as heavy-handed direction from Matt August, the text did not tell a complete story or make clear enough the stakes for the lead character. Why should we as an audience care about this man or the consequences of his actions? Dudley spends a good portion of many of his lengthy lines railing against the failings of the educational system and decrying the lack of appreciation for men like himself that can change the world through the dissemination of knowledge. However, this character viewpoint is held in total isolation from the national conversations about crippling student debt, unprecedented tuition hikes, and continued unemployment rates for college graduates.
It’s not just the lead character that seems out of touch with current academia, but the whole plot construct. I struggled with the plausibility of several plot events. For example: Megan is accused of plagiarism on a hard copy paper assignment, and her crime only discovered by the thoroughness of Ron. In the age of the digital classroom and plagiarism detecting software, I found this very hard to accept. Dudley also tells Megan that it isn’t her fault that her high school experience didn’t prepare her for research or the synthesis of ideas through analysis, that it is in college where this true learning begins. Again, in the age of specialized charter and magnet schools, accelerated programs, and “red shirting,” what Dudley describes are 10th grade core standards as set out by the now-defunct No Child Left Behind Law. The assertion that Megan, who claimed a 4.35 GPA in high school, would have never been exposed to that expectation is ridiculous. I’m not sure if it was an intentional inclusion to show how disconnected Dudley is from the rest of academia, but there was no rebuttal to question this assertion if that was the case. There is also Dudley’s secret, the revelation of which threatens everyone around him and all that he holds dear, that is only discovered by a well-meaning inquiry into his past. Honestly, this secret was not well hidden and more likely would have been discovered by a spiteful former student writing a RateMyProfessor review.
Though the story is problematic, the cast under the direction of August is excellent and the production values impeccable. Zimmerman makes an unlikable character with too many sanctimonious speeches inherently human, coming to terms with the ramifications of selfish choices painfully too late. Aardema is believably naive and manipulative as an undergraduate attached to her cellphone and her helicopter parents. Lesley Fera is touchingly genuine in her portrayal of the complicated duality of the no-nonsense Dean and vulnerable wife Jessica.
The true standout of the ensemble is Allen as Ron. In a time when universities are actively unpacking race relations and the bias of institutional racism, this character could easily have become a stereotypical “token”, yet Allen ensures that Ron is fully realized and layered. The scenic design by James Wolk impressively invoked the grandeur reminiscent of Yale or Harvard, though I was initially confused about the setting due to the use of blackboards in the opening lecture hall scene. The costume design by Aaron Swenson, lighting by Michael Gilliam, sound by Joshua C. Hight, and hair and makeup design by Amanda French all effectively complimented each other to create the appropriate environment and enhance the work of the actors.
Two Dollar Bill does ask some very challenging questions in a dramatic way, but the overall stunted story development, less than charming protagonist, and lack of thematic focus does not match the intent in a meaningful way. I appreciate PTC’s commitment to producing new work and cultivating new theatrical voices, and mine is only one of several opinions heard in the audience opening night. I heard reactions from across the board- one patron behind me admitted to falling asleep, one in front was confused, and a large party sitting near me were very impressed and highly enjoyed it. The beauty of seeing new work is that we all make first-time discoveries about a piece. For me, this one was way off the mark.