March 15, 2017

"All the Fine Boys" is Fine Enough

You may have to be a young woman in your late teens or early 20s to truly appreciate All The Fine Boys, the new play that The New Group is running in the tiny Ford Foundation Studio Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center through March 26. At least that's how it seemed to me as I sat next to two twentysomethings who laughed, sighed and totally leaned into this cautionary tale about two girls on the cusp on young womanhood and their first encounters with love and sex.

Set in the late '80s before every kid had a smartphone and internet access, All the Fine Boys centers on besties Jenny and Emily, 14-year-olds just entering high school. Bored and anxious, they try to distract themselves by watching horror movies, gossiping about mutual frenemies and imagining the things they might do with guys. Then they meet two.

Emily, a newcomer to their South Carolina suburb, falls for Adam, a worldly senior who starred in the high school play, spiels off intellectual aphorisms and boasts about his affair with an older woman. Jenny, the more forward of the two, makes a play for Joseph, a man at her church who is twice her age but seemingly interested in her too.

The play, written and directed by Erica Schmidt, tracks both relationships and attempts to give equal time to each but while Isabelle Fuhrman and Alex Wolff are convincingly sweet in Emily's story, Jenny's quickly becomes the more compelling.

That's in part because the stakes for Jenny are higher as she runs away from home to be with Joseph. But it's also because Jenny is played by Abigail Breslin, who at 10 was nominated for her performance as the would-be title character in the 2006 movie "Little Miss Sunshine" and has now grown up to be a not-quite-the-ingénue type.

Zaftig and evoking the throaty voice and feral quality of a young Ellen Barkin, Breslin gives a fearless, vanity-free performance. Jenny is more of a little girl than she let's on and, although now 20, Breslin deftly captures the insecurity of the child racing to catch up to her woman's body.

She's evenly matched by Joe Tippett, one of my favorite actors, who creates genuine sympathy for a man who could easily have been portrayed as the clichéd villain of the piece for carrying on with a minor. But Tippett show us that while Jenny is eager to appear grown-up, Joseph is just as desperate to roll back the years to a time when his life was less complicated.

It's true, as other reviewers have said that the subject matter isn't new (in fact, this is the second sympathetic portrayal of a pedophile I've seen in just the last month). And although Schmidt has a nice way with dialog, her play is clunky in parts. Still, the performances make All the Fine Boys just fine enough. The young women next to me were wiping away tears by the end.

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