Thursday, 3 March 2016

Bobby Steggert in BOY by Anna Ziegler at the Clurman Theatre

     BOY is a coproduction of the Keen Company (their first production of a new play in eight years), the Ensemble Studio Theatre, which specializes in new work, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's program in Public Understanding of Science and Technology. Anna Ziegler's play is built on a true, fascinating and touching story that raises crucial questions about gender identity. I saw a preview and the audience was warned that the play is still not in its final form, but it is clear that Ziegler is caught between a Lifetime tv movie recounting of a true event and the real subject of the drama, which is the feelings of her central character caught in a gender identity crisis. The play needs more dramatic poetry. Fortunately the play has the gifted, charismatic Bobby Steggert who makes us feel the central character's anguish.
     BOY takes place between 1968 and 1990. When a botched circumcision destroy's a baby's penis, the parents go to a Boston specialist in sexual reassignment surgery who convinces them that their son would fare better if he became a girl biologically and socially and was never told that he was once male. So the baby is castrated and "Samantha" is born. Despite all efforts of the parents and the doctor, Samantha is an unhappy child and a miserable adolescent. The parents realize that their child will only be happy as a male. "Samantha" is reborn as Adam. The play alternates scene of Adam as an adult trying to negotiate his first romantic relationship and "Samantha's" sessions with the doctor. The problem with the play in its current state is that we have a number of scenes between Samantha and the doctor that don't really offer important information and that we're missing the crucial scenes of the adolescent Samantha/Adam. During this stage in the character's development, he remains offstage while the parents argue with the doctor. The most important moment in Adam's development when, over ice cream his father tells him what happened to him as a baby, is described in exposition rather than shown. This is the moment, Adam tells us later, that "Adam was born." We never see the rage and anguish he is feeling at that moment. The other major weakness in the play in its current form is the character of the doctor who has an attachment to Samantha that is creepy rather than clinical. Adam is a living argument against the doctor's basic theory that a child's gender identity can be changed, but this version of the doctor seems too emotionally invested in his creature. We need to see his intellectual investment more. Adam's parents remain stereotypes. Ziegler also seems reluctant to explore the sexual crisis Adam faces. He's in love, but without a working penis. He might find ways to offer physical satisfaction to his girlfriend, but he cannot be fully satisfied sexually.
     BOY deals with a fascinating subject. What is gender identity? What combination of nature and nurture makes us male or female, masculine or feminine? Ziegler's play comes down on the side of nature. No amount of surgery or conditioning, no amount of scientific zeal, could turn that baby boy into a girl. We've come a long way in understanding gender identity since the 1970s. This is a powerful subject but the play isn't powerful enough.
     Bobby Steggert gives this play its heart and soul. When he's on stage, the play seems to work. When he's offstage it turns into clunky domestic melodrama. I don't understand why he's ever offstage. The play should focus totally on his character. Rebecca Rittenhouse is charming as Adam's confused girlfriend, though the writing makes her acceptance of Adam's situation too easy. Everyone else does the best they can with the material they are given.
     BOY is based on a fascinating story and deals with important subject matter. It would take a major rewrite for Anna Ziegler to mine its full potential.
BOY. Theatre Row. March 2, 2016.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Lucas Hnath's RED SPEEDO at the New York Theatre Workshop

     Lucas Hnath's fascinating RED SPEEDO is almost classical in its simple structure. Like classical tragedy, a series of confrontations between a complex, deeply flawed central character expose harsh truths about a society, in this case materialistic, morally compromised contemporary America. Our central character leaves the stage only once (to change his red speedo swimsuit). Otherwise, he engages in charged dialogue with the people with whom he is engaged in complex personal and power relationships, brother, coach, ex-girlfriend. They may love him, but they also see him as a commodity.
     When we first meet him, Ray, our protagonist (a brilliant Alex Breaux), is a swimmer on the eve of the qualifying round for the olympic swim team. Ray's only talent is swimming. In many ways, he's a version of the dumb jock. There are depths to his character, but he doesn't have the language to express them. A few years before, he broke his rise to success and disappeared into the desert to meditate. Now he's back but he isn't happy. In the first scene, Ray's older brother Peter (Lucas Caleb Rooney), does all the talking, almost a nonstop harangue to Ray's coach (Peter Jay Fernandez). Another swimmer may have used performance-enhancing drugs and Peter, protective of Ray's  (and his), chances for success and corporate sponsorship, wants the coach to keep quiet or he'll switch Ray to another coach. Throughout, Ray stands quietly, nibbling on baby carrots. He feels loyalty to his brother who has bailed him out of many bad situations. Ray doesn't express his own wants, because he doesn't know what they are. Peter doesn't care about truth. He dreams of getting out of his legal practice, which bores him, and going into sports management. If he succeeds in making Ray a success, he'll be on his way. If Ray gets into speedo ads, they'll both be set for life. The problem is that in his own bumbling, sweet way, Ray has no more moral compass than anyone else.
     What we see in the riveting eighty minutes of RED SPEEDO is an amoral culture. I thought at moments about Arthur Miller plays in which characters became so filled with ambition or illusions of success that they became lost. Everyone is compromised here, no one more than our protagonist. Like all fine playwrights, Lucas Hnath is particularly fascinated with language. RED SPEEDO opens with Peter's explosion of language and ends with a physical fight, punctuated only by primitive grunts and groans. RED SPEEDO is a major play, deserving of a long life beyond East 4th Street.
     Lileana Blain-Cruz has given the play the clean, deftly paced, production it deserves. Ricardo Hernandez's swimming pool set, dominated by an imposing, blank wall, is an appropriate setting for this quasi-tragedy. Alex Breaux is perfect as Ray. I'm sure it isn't easy for a product of Harvard and Juilliard to play someone as dim and inarticulate as Ray, but Breaux never condescends to his character, never plays a stereotype. We know Ray is thinking, feeling, even if he seldom can express what he is feeling. Lucas Caleb Rooney seems too old to play Ray's brother. A younger actor would have been more appropriate. A note to the costumer: if Peter is indeed a successful lawyer, he'd be dressed and shod more nattily. Peter Jay Fernandez and Zoe Winters as Ray's ex-girlfriend and sports therapist with a dangerous side business, do well  in their brief moments onstage.
     In a word, terrific.
RED SPEEDO. New York Theatre Workshop. March 1, 2016.