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'Sex and Education' a potent combination in Laguna

Do high school students really still pass handwritten notes in class? It seems unlikely that anyone under a certain age would opt to scribble a note versus the more rampant use of texting and tweeting.

Considering “Sex and Education” was written in the last handful of years (2010), its use of a note-passing incident as the play’s premise instantly makes suspect all that comes afterwards.

Accept that basis, though, and Lissa Levin’s play provokes well-earned laughs as well as deep reflection. That makes Andrew Barnicle’s staging at Laguna Playhouse, only the play’s fourth ever and Barnicle’s second overall, a brisk, bracing theater experience.

His comfort level with and confidence in the material are plainly evident, boosted by a well-chosen cast starring Julia Duffy (from TV’s “Designing Women” and “Newhart”) as a career high school English teacher who has decided to call it quits in favor of a new life selling real estate.

“Sex and Education” covers the last day of school in the classroom of Miss Edwards (Duffy). During a final exam, she intercepts a note written by Joe Marks (Nick Tag), the school’s all-star power forward, to Hannah Winters (Alexandra Johnston), his cheerleader girlfriend.

Joe’s missive is meant to convince Hannah to sleep with him, but Miss Edwards is more offended by his utter lack of command of the language, not to mention his rampant use of profanity.

With each on the verge of leaving Roosevelt High forever, Miss Edwards issues Joe this ultimatum: Using all the rules of written English, rewrite the note into a clear, cogent, persuasive essay, or flunk her class and be ineligible for graduation.

Though Joe has no interest in such a crash written English course, he fears “Miss E” could derail his entrance into the University of North Carolina and its vaunted basketball program – exactly what Miss Edwards is counting on.

Levin’s clever, often cheeky script has both Miss Edwards and Joe taking time-outs to confide in us, and is punctuated by Hannah’s equally sly cheerleading routines. Their dialogue elicits laughs via the teacher’s incisive wit and the student’s stubborn resistance to learning.

The script also spotlights the pluses and pitfalls of professional sports, the often intangible insights into life offered by great literature and the incredible values of knowledge in life and in having intelligent conversations.

Duffy’s soft-spoken Miss Edwards conveys an earnest passion for inspiring young minds. Entirely in keeping with her role are the way Miss E’s voice bobbles like the proverbial little old schoolmarm, her laserlike dedication to written and spoken English, and her meaningful sighs as her resolve wavers.

Tall and thin, clean-cut and congenial, Tag’s Joe is anything but a textbook dumb jock, evincing Joe’s intense passion for his sport as well as his boredom with the subject of English, his exasperation with “Miss E’s” tactics and his discomfort over having his carnal designs for Hannah scrutinized by a teacher.

Johnston’s Hannah is an outwardly vivacious, perky kitten with a pronounced Valley Girl diction – and, in actuality, a brainy student who studies hard and gets good grades.

In the hands of Levin, and Barnicle and his cast, you can’t escape the feeling that Miss Edwards’ normal mode of communicating is way over Joe’s head, and that he thinks he can simply sidestep her efforts by refusing to engage in discussion with her.

At the heart of “Sex and Education” is an informal “debate”: Joe sees only upsides (wealth, fame, fun) to entering pro sports, denigrating those dedicated to teaching; Miss E. maintains he won’t realize the cost and impact of his ignorance until it’s too late to correct or undo.

Joe belatedly realizes the session “isn’t an English lesson, it’s a life lesson,” going on the defensive when he notes that his inability to write and speak proper English is proof of failure, all right – not his, but hers, as a teacher.

With its comedic surface and profound subtext, “Sex and Education” entertains while looking at the public educational system in microcosm: One teacher, one student. As swift-moving and enjoyable as a game of basketball, it proffers an intriguing premise and delivers a finale that, while improbable, brings things full circle.

By ERIC MARCHESE / CONTRIBUTING WRITER