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Curse of the Middle Class

William Mastrosimone's Tamer of Horses takes place in a universe in which a kid named Hector wanders into the lives of two frustrated classics professors. You might surmise a coincidence like this is at hand from the title, a reference to Hector, the warrior hero of Homer's Iliad. But would you guess that the Hector of this play -- which is getting its Florida premiere at the Florida Stage -- is a Latino street kid, and that the two professors he meets are black? The 15-year-old from New York City finds his way to Georgiane and Ty Fletcher's rural New Jersey home, where the horses are named Zeus and Hera. That's good news for Hector, it seems. What if his name had been Jed?

Or Pat, which is the adjective that best describes the play's dynamic. Mastrosimone, who also wrote the sensationally specious 1982 rape-drama Extremities, has concocted a story that sets out to prove that Homer can save, well, homeboys. If that isn't pat, then Achilles didn't drag the Hector of the Iliad three times around the gates of Troy before, as the Hector of Tamer of Horses puts it, "smoking him." What's a play about a street kid, after all, without some catchy urban dialogue?

Ty is a burned-out prep school teacher who is caught up in a struggle with his headmaster over whether it's right to pass a failing student just because his father is a big donor to the school. When Hector appears in his stable one winter morning, lost and on the run, Ty sees him as a welcome relief to the spoiled rich kids in his classes. Not that Hector has a passion for learning. He's ill-mannered, sassy, suspicious, and as Ty discovers, illiterate. But Ty finds him charming, particularly after the kid makes up a rap to commemorate his encounter with the Fletchers' barbed wire fence. When Hector confesses to Ty that he's also responsible for a robbery at a neighbor's house, Ty makes a deal with him. Ty won't turn him in if Hector agrees to be tutored in classics and literacy. No idiot, Hector chooses reading over Rikers.

In making this offer, the well-intentioned Ty intends to prove to himself, if not his headmaster, that the classics are essential to real life. The rich kids he teaches may be a waste of time, but Hector provides Ty with a chance to inject morals into a still-unformed character. Hector is the same age as Ty's students and therefore similarly beyond Ty's power to change him, but that detail does not seem to have occurred to the playwright or to Ty. At the same time, we learn through tedious exposition, Ty also wants to redeem himself after a failed experience with his younger brother. His effort to help Sam, also a street kid, didn't take. Sam, it seems, ended up dead in his cell, a sharp object stuck in his ribs.

Set entirely in the Fletchers' kitchen and its adjoining stable (Richard Crowell's set is quite handsome), the play unfolds as a series of encounters between Hector and his hosts. From Georgiane he learns good manners. From Ty he learns the meaning of hard work and big words. Wakened early to help with the chores, Hector insists he wants to eat breakfast first. "My hunger is unequivocal," he brags.

He also learns how to read and how to reevaluate some of his experiences as a petty thief terrorizing riders on the New York subway. When Ty explains to him the meaning of conscience, Hector recounts a story about a robbery that turned fatal when an older man was taken by surprise by Hector and his friends. Hector is a quick learner, it seems. While it may take him a good half-hour to sound out the letters D-O-G written on the blackboard in the stable, confronted with the notion of morality, he absorbs it in mere minutes.

Dramatic shortcomings aside, the notion that a teacher can reach a street kid with more ease than he can his prep school students is remarkably patronizing. Is Hector so lacking in complexity that he can be molded instantly by Ty's values, while the kids in Ty's class are not? "I never felt more like a teacher than right here with him," Ty says of his new pet project. Ty's rich students may be thankless, but Hector is a kid who readily soaks up Ty's wisdom. Indeed, the playwright seems to feel there's something noble about taking a kid off the streets, reading him a famous poem, and -- with a few hitches -- having him go off into the world a new person, saved by the middle class.

Tamer of Horses won the Best Play Award in 1987 from the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP. But does it really matter that Hector's saviors are black? Black yuppies have been in existence long enough not to need validation from white playwrights, one would think. If anything, the back-story of Ty's brother only makes the play more maudlin than it needs to be. Things are weepy enough in Tamer of Horses, thank you very much, with its young protagonist who recounts his early start in life as an unborn baby rescued from a late-term abortion by a nurse, nurtured to viability, and put into a series of bad foster homes. Just before he arrived at the Fletchers', Hector had escaped from a Dickensian youth home. But despite all that, he's really good at heart. Sigh.

But wait, you ask, how does a kid learn right from wrong by reading the classics? When Ty finishes reading the Iliad to Hector, he asks the boy to recall the story in his own words. In one of the few sequences of Tamer of Horses that contains authentic charm, Hector begins: "There's this Trojan dude named Paris... with a foxy-ass wife named Helen." Asked what Troy is, he replies, "Some city on a hill with some big-ass wall around it." When recounting the final battle between Achilles and the Hector of the story, young Hector points out that Achilles cheated by getting help from Athena.

From this point our hero is able to make the leap to the idea that his robbing people is a kind of cheating. In reality Tamer of Horses isn't particularly compelling as social work or as drama. Good art poses important questions rather than providing answers in places where we have to trip over them. Here even the symbols don't come to life. Tamer of Horses may be set in a stable, but the actual beasts, the horses Zeus and Hera, represented only by the sounds of neighing and galloping, never seem real to us.

Helmed by Florida Stage's director-in-residence, Benny Sato Ambush, Tamer of Horses proffers the work of an excellent cast, all of whom give polished complex performances despite the thinness of the play. As Hector, Cesar Leonardo is as charismatic as seems humanly possible, given the emotional contrivances his character must overcome. As the Fletchers, Marcus Naylor and Sandra Mills Scott similarly plant complexity in their characters where the playwright left it out. All three deserve to be in a play that truly is a classic.

Tamer of Horses.
Written by William Mastrosimone. Directed by Benny Sato Ambush. Starring Cesar Leonardo, Marcus Naylor, and Sandra Mills Scott. Through April 25. Florida Stage, Plaza Del Mar, 262 S. Ocean Blvd., Manalapan, 800-514-3837.

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Robin Dougherty