Horse Whipped

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 the 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 fifteen-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 that 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 prison 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 re-evaluate some of his experiences as a petty thief terrorizing riders on New York's subway cars. 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 the boy and his friends. Hector also appears to be a quick learner. While it may take him a good half-hour to sound out the letters D-O-G written on the blackboard in the stable, when 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 his 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 think 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 relates 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.

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