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The stranger is Christopher Simpson from Rhodesia and Oxford, the unflappable, credential-less charmer who snakes his way up from a part-time assistantship to become Acting Dean of the Humanities at M.I.T. The entertainer is associate professor Porter Platt, entertaining Chris with suburban hospitality and entertaining us with some of the smartest, funniest observations on academia since Lucky Jim. ""Athens besieged by Sparta"" is the early-1970s status quo for the Humanities at an Institute of Technology, and imperiled WASP-dom (""My children were turning Jewish. . . people began going around saying Cary Grant was Jewish"") is Platt's additional burden. As he watches his classes dwindle, his salary freeze, and his colleagues bicker (""I'm so mad I'm going downtown to see Death Wish""), he depends more and more on the ever-diminishing gratitude and companionship of protege Chris. He wonders if ""this is really a homosexual book,"" notwithstanding his wife and four children, and, to prove it isn't, rapes poet-lecturer Alice Austin: ""I remember feeling kind of proud. I'd never raped anyone before."" Here we start enjoying Platt less and worrying about him more, even though there's heady exhilaration when his new macho self gives smug Chris a sock in the jaw, refusing to apologize and risking his job. As a male-menopause bildungsroman (if that's what Gurney intends), Platt's progress is disjointed and a little disturbing. But as, well, Scenes from American Life (the title of Gurney's award-winning play), this academic All About Eve is a sneaky dazzler--ostentatiously acute and broadly human enough to have off-campus appeal and to withstand the ""dated"" epithet for the foreseeable future.

Pub Date: June 3rd, 1977
Publisher: Doubleday