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.

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