November 23, 2011

Is "Wild Animals You Should Know" Too Tame?

Theater doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  A show like The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs took on a different meaning after the Apple co-founder’s death.  And Wild Animals You Should Know, the new play that MCC Theater opened at the Lucille Lortel Theatre on Sunday, felt different, at least to me, in the wake of the recent pedophile scandal at Penn State. 

Playwright Thomas Higgins centers the action around a Boy Scouts camping trip.  
A few days before that weekend, a teen scout named Matthew, the alpha male of the troop, discovers that the scout master is gay and decides to use that information to his advantage. The way he does it made me squirm.

But that’s not the only thing going on in this play.  The closeted scout master is wrestling with some other secrets. Matthew’s best friend Jacob is also gay and desperate to hold on to their friendship. Matthew’s dad has just lost his job and is now dependent on his frustrated wife’s income. And the family’s neighbor is a macho beer-swiller who is more complex than he appears to be. 

Higgins, who just got his M.F.A. from Columbia University in 2008, clearly wants to examine how masculinity and the relationships between men are defined today but he doesn’t yet have the dexterity to keep all those, ahem, balls up in the air. 

His dialog is snappy, the scenarios intriguing and the questions he raises are worthwhile but the characters aren’t drawn clearly enough and the actions they take aren’t fully realized or rationalized. Higgins is still sorting things out and I wish he had taken this play on later in his career.

Still, director Trip Cullman has put together an engaging production, even if some of the parts seem miscast.  John Behlmann is appropriately sturdy as the scout master and Daniel Stewart Sherman goes enjoyably heavy on the comic relief as the neighbor. But the usually good Patrick Breen, who's made a specialty of playing milquetoasts, seems too fey here. 

Breen works hard but you can’t imagine that his version of the dad ever felt secure in himself and so the new doubts that the play gives him just get lost amidst the already existing ones. Meanwhile, Alice Ripley, dynamic and moving in her Tony-winning performance in Next to Normal, is almost unrecognizable and ultimately unmemorable as the mom. 

The boys come off better. Jay Armstrong Johnson has the looks and the bravado to play Matthew but, like the play as a whole, seems held back by Higgins’ inability or unwillingness to make the character’s motivations and goals less fuzzy. Gideon Glick pretty much nails Jacob but he has the advantage of having played a similar role in Stephen Karam’s Speech and Debate a few years back (click here to read an interview with both actors). 

I know this isn’t sounding like much of a recommendation.  And most of the critics and my theatergoing buddy Bill were pretty much underwhelmed by Wild Animals You Should Know. So maybe it’s because the state of the economy and the Penn State mess already had me thinking about some of the issues the play raises but its 100 minutes went by swiftly for me and the questions Higgins raises have stayed with me. 

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