Saturday, January 19, 2008

Good Boys And True (The SOB Review)

Good Boys And True (The SOB Review) - Downstairs Theatre, Steppenwolf, Chicago, IL

*** (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.

The result?

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).

Click here for tickets.

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At 19 January, 2008, Blogger Esther said...

I think it's great that your love of the theater extends to supporting young playwrights. Thank-you for being so open about why this play touched you.

I'm proud of you and I love you.

Your sister,

At 19 January, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Thanks Esther. This show was very moving, and I dare say that during the point where Brandon comes out to his mother, it reminded me of the day I came out to mine. It's one of those moments I'll never forget -- mostly because my mother's love should never have been in question.

At 21 January, 2008, Blogger Alicia said...

This sounds like a very interesting play - hope it makes its way out East so that I can see it, lest I have to seek the alternative of (GASP) reading it!

It sounds a lot like one of my current musical obsessions: bare. Are you familiar with that one? Any opinions?

P.S. I don't remember who I saw in ANNIE. It was sometime in the first three months of 1979, so I'm guessing I did see Sheila Hancock, since it only opened in 1978... What a coincidence! :)

At 21 January, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Alicia, Funny you should ask. Good Boys And True will be making its New York debut Off-Broadway at Second Stage starting April 24.

This version will boast a different cast than Steppenwolf's production and will be under the direction of Scott Ellis. Hope you have a chance to see it.

P.S. I saw Annie in London during the same timeframe as you, albeit in April 1979. That means you likely saw it with Sheila Hancock, too. How funny!

At 28 February, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know really nothing of theatre so take my comment with a grain of salt, but I feel that this positive review in stated with great bias. The fact that you can relate to the situation does not necessarily give you the ability to say positive things about it as a whole. The fact of the matter is that for a straight, every day male, this play lacks ALL emotion! The mother was emotionless the whole play. Also, to critique the production even further, the plot was extremely weak in that problems exist that are never resolved. All I am saying is possibility take yourself out of you shoes and think of the production objectively for a second and maybe you'll see my point.


At 28 February, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...


Of course what I wrote was written with great bias. What is a review if not a bias?!

That's the beauty of going to see live theatre or any other type of performance for that matter. If it sings to us in any special way, as this did to me, I spelled it out and explained why.

I respectfully disagree with your assertion, however, that the mother was emotionless throughout the play. Just because she doesn't scream and doesn't cry doesn't mean she was without emotion.

As for the plot, I thought it was far from weak. And in fact, over last weekend, I learned about an actual straight version the video tape scenario that appeared and upended a school in a strangely similar fashion.

Sorry you couldn't relate to the show, but I most definitely could. But at least I was honest about the reasons why.

At 13 May, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Post Script: If you're taking in the New York production, it's my understanding that the story has been changed, particularly in some of the key threads identified above.


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