First Nighter: Frank Basloe's Please Continue a Top-Drawer Examination of the Primacy of Order-Giving, Guilt and Little Remorse

In the early 1960s, social psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of preliminary experiments with Yale undergraduates prior to a more elaborate version, the results of which are now somewhat well known.

Curious to know how far individuals might go at obeying orders -- Milgram apparently had World War II atrocities on his mind -- he arranged a set-up where an "Experimenter" would encourage a "Teacher" to administer increasing electric shocks to a secluded "Learner" supposedly able to recall or unable to recall a series of verbal cues.

What he discovered in New Haven and had substantiated later was that despite the mounting cries the Learners were issuing from the booth in which they'd been strapped down but were unseen throughout the process, a frightening percentage of the Teachers went on to administer the shocks after the expressionless Experimenter said things like "Please continue" and "The experiment requires that you continue." Teachers continued as told, even as they were, for instance, sweating and groaning.

Obviously fascinated by the study and the ethical questions raised about tormenting the men acting as Teachers (who were never informed that the set-up was a hoax), Frank Basloe has lifted the Experimenter's first admonishment as the title of his complex and deeply disturbing Please Continue. William Carden has directed the production at Ensemble Studio Theatre as part of the company Alfred P. Sloane Foundation program.

But Basloe hasn't stopped with MIlgram. He's been further inspired to link the experiment with another event on the Yale campus. In the very late 1950s, a number of Yale men boarding in Calhoun College -- and perhaps classmates from other undergraduate colleges -- entertained for an unpleasant several weeks a local 14-year-old girl. ("Entertained" is a euphemism for what was actually occurring.)

From scene to scene, Basloe observes the effects of the MIlgram (Haskell King) activity, also involving his chosen Experimenter James Sanders (David Edward Jackson). He alternates them with conversations between a troubled student, Francis Dunleavy (Jared McGuire) and William Sloane Coffin Jr. (Tommy Schrider), who then was only in his second year as Yale Chaplain. Those talks revolved around Dunleavy's gnawing discontent at his having participated in the Calhoun episodes but not having been named as one of the perpetrators and therefore his having remained on campus while others were expelled for a limited period of time.

In other words, Basloe joins the Milgram experiment on men acquiescing to implement pain under orders with the experience of a man who carries on the degradation of a young girl -- likely the destruction of her life and her family's -- all the while knowing that what he'd doing is wrong. The transgressions did, of course, become public knowledge, in the Yale Daily News and then nationally.

There's no denying that Basloe has recognized the drama in both situations and, coupling them, has upped the dramatic stakes. He raises any number of issues involving guilt, forgiveness and, possibly more than anything else, the widespread absence of remorse.

In the pursuit of knowledge about man's potential for inhumanity to man, Basloe includes several sequences during which the characters are questioned about their motives and their responses. Sanders is prodded more than once by his friend Saul Dashoff (Jonathan Randall Silver), who serves as the Learner for all sessions. Sanders's refusal, somewhat Adolph Eichmann-like, to admit misgivings eventually erodes the Sanders-Dashoff bond.

Dunleavy twice confronts a friend from the Calhoun miscreants about his doubts -- the expelled Mitchell Halverson (Dylan Dawson), who's ready for basic training at Fort Dix. He elicits no misgivings whatsoever. Dunleavy's fiancée Margaret Hobson (Molly Carden), who wears a leg brace, importunes Coffin as to how she's expected to react on learning the upright man she's about to marry has been revealed as less than upright.

Basloe also includes a particularly raw exchange between Sanders and one of the hugely affronted Teachers. He's Harold Burden (Alex Herrald), and the confrontation takes place at the (now-defunct) Taft Hotel where both men are in the lobby waiting for their dates. The sequence is a stinging honey.

Curiously, the only one in Please Continue not pointedly confronted is the relatively young Milgram, who throughout remains obdurate. Perhaps Basloe's rationale is his presenting Milgram as an unremitting objective man of science. But that isn't sufficient. If there's a small gap in the script, it's the one-dimensional -- okay, two-dimensional -- depiction of Milgram.

There may be another drawback. It's in the likening of the Milgram undertaking with Dunleavy's dilemma. Milgram is intrigued to find out how far people are willing to go when under orders. Dunleavy wasn't going along under orders. By his own grim admission, he was succumbing to a form of peer pressure. Certainly, that negative incentive is related to the other, but Basloe doesn't articulate as much.

Nonetheless, though Basloe includes a few dry moments during his two acts, he's written a play that not only starts intermission debates but will also keep them going long after the last fade-out. And while his finale is brief and low-key, it's strong. What occurs during it won't be described, but it does more than imply that often when seemingly irreparable harm has been done, time and the ease of forgetting can repair previously destructive circumstances.

Under Carden's direction in the recently refurbished EST auditorium, Please Continue is possibly receiving its sleekest EST production yet. The ensemble acting is first-rate, as are the Jason Simms set (that conjures the wood-paneled walls of academia), Susan Chesney's period costumes (mod dressing doesn't hit New Haven for years after these episodes), Erlc Southern's lighting and Shane Retting's sound design.

Now for an uneasy full disclosure: I was on the Yale campus when these events took place. Not only that. I was on the Yale Daily News staff when the story broke. (I wasn't assigned to cover it.) I can say without fear of too much contradiction that just about every undergrad knew of the Calhoun disgrace as well as the young girl's first name, which was regularly bandied about, but I can't recall any of us moving quickly to put a stop to it.

Furthermore, when Dunleavy initially meets Coffin, he recalls Coffin's previous year as a temporary chaplain at Phillips Academy Andover. Dunleavy says he was then at Andover and had acted in King Lear with Coffin's then-wife, Eva Rubinstein, who'd come to Andover direct from playing Anne Frank's sister Margot in The Diary of Anne Frank on Broadway. Dunleavy says how good Rubinstein was as Cordelia. It so happens I was in that production -- as Cornwall. No one called Francis Dunleavy was, if I remember correctly.

Considering the overlaps between the play and my life -- I'm the only person who can make the Yale Daily News-Andover/King Lear claims -- I can report that Basloe has his facts well in hand. I noticed three inaccuracies, but they're hardly worth listing. One is not that Eva Rubinstein was actually a so-so Cordelia. She wasn't. She was marvelous.