Butler is a household name, provided that your household bookshelf buckles beneath critical theory texts. Put it this way: She gets a shout-out in the final season of “BoJack Horseman.” (Take that, Fredric Jameson.) “Fragments, Lists & Lacunae” does and doesn’t suggest what it must be like to sit in on her seminars. The words and habits of mind are not hers. Chasin, whose faculty bio notes an interest in “the limits of sense; white space; repetition; and fragments,” adapted the piece from one of her own courses.
But I would bet that Butler lends the professor her own mannerisms. Her voice is low and gently burred, her affect is a funky mix of playfulness and precision. Clad in a trim black suit, clutching a laser pointer, she gestures lavishly from her elbows and wrists and sometimes wields a funny, Groucho-esque shrug — an intellectual who is down to clown.
Chasin’s talks, as delivered by Butler, are brisk and deft, cognitive chew toys to worry as you walk or ride home. But where the piece falters is in its more theatrical aspects, especially its tawdry imagining of the students. At the end of several of the lectures, the classroom lights dim and silent scenes play out upstage — alcohol poisoning, an unplanned pregnancy, a bacchanal with shirtless dancing. Do these students ever go to the library? Or call their moms?
By contrast, the off-hours glimpse of the professor shows her in a comfortable armchair, perusing a student’s presentation. The play also generally avoids professor-student interaction, though Butler had a nice improv as she handed a student a dropped earring. “A little fragment,” she said.
The play runs two hours — about the length of a seminar meeting — and as it continues, the work of listening and reading, of thinking and watching, of trying to reconcile the romance of the classroom with the melodrama of the students’ lives, becomes more difficult and less pleasurable. Why couldn’t this just be a lecture, I scribbled, as I made my own fragments and lists and the occasional doodle in my notebook.
Fragments, Lists & LacunaeThrough Feb. 15 at New York Live Arts, Manhattan; 212-691-6500, newyorklivearts.org. Running time: 2 hours