‘Alex and Aris’

Alex and Aris might sound like a sassy, light-hearted rom-com, or a part of ABC’s hopeful new Friday night line-up, but no. There is nothing a bit sassy about this dense and think-y two-person play at ACT Theatre, which at times felt as light as a pillowcase full of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The “Alex” in this world premiere play by Moby Pomerance is none other than Alexander the Great—world conqueror! Emperor! Legendary poofter!—and the “Aris” is Aristotle—genius! Philosopher! Legendary Greek! Aristotle tutored the young Alexander, prince of Macedonia, and this could be an electric, fascinating theatrical pairing. Imagine the possibilities! But ACT kinda blew it.

The scenario: the king of Macedon has summoned the renowned and occasionally drinky brainiac Aristotle to privately tutor his earnest and intense young son, Alexander. It’s not nearly as sexy as you might think. Lots and lots of talking ensues.

Alex and Aris employs the narrative cliche of venerable master giving tough love and philosophical guidance to a green, intense and slightly sexually confused youth, whose dad is holding the purse strings. It’s heavy on the dialogue, light on the action, and nil as far as character development is concerned.

There is a lot of the worn, familiar intellectual sparring you’d expect, as Aristotle forces the naive young prince into mind games intended to instruct in the art of harsh reality. But the real relationship I was hungering to see never developed—the production just barrelled forward like a freight train, offering no real insights into the motivations, hearts and souls of these two fascinating creatures, who mostly just talk a lot at each other. It was far more history lesson than drama. We never see Alexander really grow or grow up: Alex, bumbling novice, suddenly becomes ALEXANDER THE GREAT, ENSLAVER OF THE WESTERN WORLD in the space of intermission. How did that happen?

According to the play’s press materials,“Very little is written by the great historians about this time in the life of both men,” and this is true. Their history together is largely a blank canvas. Two of the most fascinating human creatures in all of human creature history should be an endless wellspring of r theatrical fodder. But without sufficient story or character arc, it played like a two-hour dry conversation between any old hired teacher and any old rich kid student. It seemed like a wasted opportunity. 

The story is diverting enough for a history buff, but the dramatic arc is microscopic and there’s almost no character development to speak of, so please do not strain yourself trying to find any. The acting is solid, if rather one-note. Darragh Kennan is a capable actor indeed, but as directed by John Langs Kennan’s Aristotle was very serious, very staid, very dry, and entirely devoid of whimsy or a sense of humor. It reads as a bit desperate, and more than a bit rote, but Alex and Aris is relentless in it’s march forward, and any suspicion of light-heartedness is sacrificed along the way.

As played by Chip Sherman, Alexander is fraught, self-possessed and also very serious. His earnest focus served the character as written well enough, but as written we never really got to see a human heart in Alexander. I expect to see good work from Sherman in the future, but this Alex sometimes felt like a frustrated meat robot with three settings: confused, panicked, and despotic. He played panicked and confused and sometimes brutal, but there wasn’t a drop of actual vulnerability.

The set, designed by Julia Hayes Welch, reminded me of the big, blocky cement-stepped fountain that never works at Freeway Park. Just put a great big black tree stage left. So simple. So uninspired.

Oh, and if you are worried about the warning that ACT gives you before the show, fret not! Warnings of “adult language, sexual and stage violence” are pure wishful thinking. This production was as triggering as an episode of The Smurfs. Don’t get your hopes up.

Alex and Aris runs through Aug. 6