May 24, 2008

"Good Boys and True" Isn’t True To Itself

I like a play that wrestles with a knotty problem and, in the process, forces me to take a stand on a difficult issue. In the old days, they used to call such works problem plays. But the biggest problem with Good Boys and True, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s ambitious play about a sex scandal at a boys’ school now running at the Second Stage Theatre through June 1, is that it doesn’t know which problem it wants to deal with. There are enough issues in this play to tie up “The Oprah Winfrey Show” for at least a week.

Sitting over a couple of glasses of wine at the Broadway restaurant Orso's after the show, my pal Bill and I tried to figure out what the play is really about. Was it a coming out saga? Or a cautionary family drama about contemporary parenting? Or a jeremiad against class privilege in American society? Each of these is a worthy subject and one that I'd be happy to see examined on stage. But it’s hard to do all of them justice in just 90 intermissionless minutes.

The eagerness to crowd so much into Good Boys and True plays havoc with its internal logic. One minute we're told that the jocks on the school's football team are so aware of a one-way relationship that one of its members is having with a gay classmate that they joke about getting in on the action; the next moment we hear that a participant in that relationship worries about what will happen when one of those same team members walks in on the pair. Similarly, we’re lead to believe that the parents of one of the boys are intimately involved in their son’s life and yet when a crisis occurs the father never shows up. It’s hard for a playwright who’s dealing with all of this turmoil to keep all the balls in the air (and yes, pun intended). But if there’s no room in the budget for a dramaturge, shouldn’t the director be speaking up?

Good Boys and True reportedly ran two hours in its original production at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre last year (click here to see an excerpt from that production). I don’t know what was cut or why but even the longer production seems to have left some critics as unsatisfied as my pal Bill and I were. “Aguirre-Sacasa's play is wholly contrived, heavy-handed and flatly rendered,” complained the Chicago Sun-Times. Which raises the question of why Second Stage decided to bring the play to New York. One hopes it isn’t because the playwright’s pedigree—he went to the Yale School of Drama, writes award-winning Marvel comic books and his father recently ran for president of Nicaragua—offers the kind of backstory that's a magnet for media coverage.

There are, however, some redeeming qualities about the New York production. The best is Derek McLane’s trophy-laden set, which is not only handsome but quietly eloquent about the values our society places on achievement. But there are lovely acting turns too. Christopher Abbott captures all the awkward pride of a young gay boy who knows who he is, what it costs to be so and willingly makes the decision to pay that price. Betty Gilpin delivers the best scene in the play as a young lower class woman equally aware of how little she is valued in a winner take all society.

And yet, in the end, they weren’t enough. There was silence when the play ended at the performance that Bill and I attended. Not the silence of awe. But the silence of “is that all?” I wanted to like this play. I congratulate Aguirre-Sacasa for taking on such tough stuff. But, as the Latin-speaking students in Good Boys and True might say, simplex sigillum veri: simplicity is the sign of truth.


Marc Acito said...

I just discovered your blog this morning and spent way more time reading your insightful posts than I had anticipated. Keep up the good work. I'll certainly be back for more.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Welcome Marc and thanks for your very, very kind and encouraging words. I hope you will continue to read and to comment.

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Jan, From reading what you and others have written about the New York production, it appears that the show has changed rather consequentially since I first saw it at Steppenwolf. I can only wonder why.

Anonymous said...

I felt the problem with this show was that it lacked authenticity. As someone who attended a private catholic all boys school, and who also graduated in the same class (1989) I expected to experience some recognition, some kind of connection to the material. But everything to me rang false for me. I agree that Betty Gilpin was a stand out and had the only scene that seemed remotely realistic. I also felt that there was far too much talk and no action. Multiple scenes with characters recounting long stories of experiences and characters we never meet which at the seemingly have no real effect on both the characters and the audience.

Anonymous said...

Betty Gilpin is a star on the rise. I thought she gave the best performance in this play. Even though her role in the film "Ghost Town" was smallish, you couldn't take your eyes off of her. I understand she's brilliant in "Boy's Life." Seeing that soon.