*** (out of ****)
If the dearth of new television shows has left you wondering what all those writers are doing when they're not picketing, look around the country and you may just spot some of them working in live theatre.
Consider the case of Nicaraguan-born playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who had recently been added as a writer to television's "Big Love" series on HBO. While he had already written his Good Boys And True prior to the strike, he certainly couldn't have been expecting a unique confluence of events to bring him to Chicago's Steppenwolf.
At the time my favorite Windy City theatre company had announced Good Boys And True as part of its 2007-08 Theatrical Season, Amy Morton was initially attached as the play's director. Of course, anyone who's been paying attention to Broadway theatre knows that Morton is currently wowing crowds at Rialto's Imperial Theatre in a "little" ensemble play. When it became obvious she would be unavailable to helm Good Boys And True, Pam MacKinnon was brought in.
Then, of course, the Writers Guild of America strike was authorized and broke out in early November. That enabled Aguirre-Sacasa to join MacKinnon, along with her outstanding cast and crew, in honing the world premiere of his work, which began last month on the Steppenwolf stage.
Well, having already read Chicago Tribune columnist Chris Jones complete pan:
There is no sense of adolescent sexuality in Pam MacKinnon's icy, clipped, weirdly fractured production. There's not enough pain or passion. You don't believe in it for moment.coupled with Chicago Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss' unfortunate comparison with Alan Bennett's The History Boys:
But where Bennett's work is luminous, literate and bristling, and triggers the sort of instantaneous leap of faith that comes with great writing, Aguirre-Sacasa's play is wholly contrived, heavy-handed and flatly rendered.I was completely prepared to hate the show and question my judgment for agreeing to become one of the show's sponsors (full disclosure here: when approached by Steppenwolf last fall to serve as an individual production sponsor with a donation, I readily agreed).
Quite the opposite occurred.
I found a very honest depiction of how Brandon Hardy (an earnest Stephen Louis Grush) -- a popular young 80s prep school student, who seemed to have it all including good looks, excellent grades (he was accepted into Dartmouth) and athletic prowess -- dealt with his fears over being gay. Unlike today's adolescents, who fortunately seem to understand and come to terms with their burgeoning sexuality much earlier than was possible a generation ago, Brandon is compelled to hide who he truly is from everyone else at St. Joe's Prep.
Having developed a relationship with his fellow classmate Justin Simmons (Tim Rock), Hardy yearns for the day at Darmouth when, together with Justin, he can shed the he-man prep school myth he's created for himself. He's become enslaved by it, not only for fear of complete rejection by his fellow classmates and teachers, but also by his parents, who have come to live through his second generation glory, both as star football player and grade-A student. He has to be just that much better than everyone else. He's essentially become the best little boy in the world.
Brandon is living in a world of privilege. He understands all too well that gay boys just don't enjoy the same open doors as those boys who have never had to question their own sexuality, who just take it for granted that they're straight. Brandon realizes that he has to work double duty, not only in creating the illusion that he's one of them, but also at excelling at everything he does. He's compelled to do anything he can to safeguard his secret, lest there be a hint of gossip about him and Justin.
Very early on, we learn that there's a videotape circulating of a boy, who looks suspiciously like Brandon from the back, clearly having sex with -- or quite possibly raping -- a young teen name Cheryl Moody (Kelly O'Sullivan). At the very least, we know that the act itself was taped without her consent.
The video ends up in the hands of St. Joe's Coach Russell Shea (John Procaccino). He realizes that its contents could undermine the school's local standing. Suspecting that the boy in question is his star Brandon, he approaches the boy's mother Elizabeth (a superb Martha Lavey), who can't even conceive that her son would be capable of such a thing.
Ultimately, Brandon reveals his secret to his mother in one of the most poignant, heartfelt and truthful scenes I've seen portrayed anywhere dealing with a child's coming out. It's said that mothers always know. And far from being contrived, this moment is incredibly honest and true, especially considering how light years away acceptance of homosexuality was a mere twenty years ago.
With all due respect to Jones and Weiss, ask anyone who's been where Brandon Hardy was, someone on the cusp of a great future, but afraid to accept his own truth for fear of losing everything simply because of being gay, and he might very well tell you the lengths of deception he'd go to in concealing who he was.
While most young gay men a generation ago would not have gone to the extreme young Brandon does, far too many resorted to shams of marriages or other devices to create and maintain illusions that rob them of time, relationships and, most of all, the dignity to be who they really are. What Aguirre-Sacasa, MacKinnon and the outstanding cast of Good Boys And True achieve is a reminder for just how damaging and confining closets can be.
Perhaps no one can really understand unless you've been there yourself.
This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).
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