Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2007
There is a reason why this serious look at the dynamics of the delicate and tenuous relationships between human males and females has such a cutesy and frivolous title as Boy Gets Girl, but on a brief scan of the Theater Barn’s 2007 schedule that is not going to be immediately apparent. In fact Boy Gets Girl would be a better title for Calvin Berger, the innocuous teen self-esteem builder currently playing at Barrington Stage’s Musical Theatre Lab, than it is for this somber, grown-up play about very real and dangerous situation.
There is a lot of buzz about Alabama-born playwright Rebecca Gilman (1965- ). Her 1998 opus The Glory of Living won several awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Her 1999 Spinning into Butter, which concludes its run at the New Century Theatre in Northampton this weekend, won the Roger L. Stevens Award from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays and a Jeff Award,. Boy Gets Girl follows these two works chronologically, having had it's premiere at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2000.
Chicago Tribune Arts Critic Chris Jones wrote of Gilman “...she writes plays with such intriguing plots that the audience finds itself hungry for what is going to happen next-and once she has the viewer under that narrative spell, she does not shirk from exposing complex themes with a strongly feminist sensibility, dispensed with just the right quirky touch of nouveau Southern gothic.”
Boy Gets Girl begins with a fairly disastrous blind date between magazine editor Theresa Bedell (Kathleen Carey) and software instructor Tony Ross (Peter Diseth). It is obvious from the start that these two 30-somethings are not a match, but that Tony is just as eager for the relationship to take off as Theresa is determined to end it before it gets started. Despite Theresa’s icy demeanor and frankness, Tony does not seem willing to take no for an answer. Before the end of Act I it is apparent that Tony is a psychopath and that Theresa has had the misfortune to become his latest obsession.
The story of what happens to Theresa is mostly played out against the backdrop of her work life. Theresa is completely alone in the world. Her parents are both dead, she is estranged from her only sibling, and her most recent significant other has relocated to Kuala Lumpur and started a new life without her. Theresa’s life is her work, and she is blessed with a boss Howard Siegel (Michael F. Hayes), an older, divorced man, and a colleague Mercer Stevens (Ryan Wesley Gilreath), a young, married man, who really care about her and do their best to support and protect her during this ordeal. In addition Harriet (Emily Crockett), the newly-hired 22-year-old administrative assistant, makes an effort to help, which ends up being just as woefully inadequate as her typing, Xeroxing, and telephone skills. The police get involved and Theresa receives advice from Detective Madeline Beck (Joan Faxon), an older woman who has remained single by choice.
You can see from that quick run-down that Gilman has carefully stacked the deck with a healthy smorgasbord of ages, genders, and types of heterosexual adults, and much of the dialogue involves how each person reacts to Theresa’s situation. How does the naturally occurring male “pursuit” of the “hard-to-get” female morph into a life-or-death power struggle? Do we unconsciously encourage men to think of women as “prey” and encourage women to behave as such?
What saves this play from being just one long feminist diatribe about how men use power to intimidate and control women is the delightful addition of a seventh character, an aging pornographer named Les Kennkat (John Trainor), who Theresa is interviewing for a feature article in the magazine she works for, “The World.” I am not sure about the message that the healthiest way for men and women to relate is through the blunt-force honesty of pornography, but I do know that Trainor plays Kennkat with a twinkle in his eye that is hard to resist. His unexpected friendship with Theresa is charming and free from the women’s studies-style self-analysis her friendships with Howard and Mercer are subjected to.
Director Phil Rice has Carey play Theresa as an absolutely real and rather unsympathetic woman. When Kennkat tells Theresa that she is a depressing person who can kill a joke at twenty-paces, he really hits the nail on the head. Carey’s Theresa is cold and closed off from others emotionally and physically for reasons she prefers to keep private. That she is not a warm and fuzzy person for whom we immediately feel sympathy makes Gilman’s attempts to engage us in conversations about the male/female dynamic more successful. It is easier to look clinically at the plight of someone who doesn’t have an emotional draw.
This aspect of Theresa’s character also makes the play scary. The Theater Barn is billing this as a thriller, and while no weapons, drawing rooms, butlers, or bodies appear, they are right. Boy Gets Girl is much, much scarier than any old WhoDunIt because it is so very plausible. Theresa has done nothing to provoke the “rape” of her life, independence and identity, but it happens just the same. Things like this can and do happen quickly and often. There but for the grace of God go I.
Carey delivers a mesmerizing and visceral performance which really anchors this production. Gilreath and Hayes are fine in their sympathetic supporting roles. Faxon seemed to be underplaying Detective Beck’s professional calm to the point of catatonia, even in the scene when Beck opens up a bit about her own personal life choices.
I thought Crockett’s depiction of Harriet was off the mark. There needed to be slightly more of the air-headed bimbo about her to make the performance match the character as written. Crockett is a very pretty young woman, and if she had been “tarted up” a bit more she would have made a better physical juxtaposition with Carey’s no-nonsense Theresa.
And what can you say about any actor who plays Tony? I had an instinct not to applaud for poor Diseth at the curtain call simply because I had come to hate the character he played, and Tony actually appears on stage very little – not at all in the second act – you just hear what he has done or is doing, rather than witnessing it. In most of his scenes Diseth and Rice have Tony come across as relatively normal, although a bit geeky and uneducated. Gilman is on record as saying she believes the role needs to be cast with a very likeable actor. I am not sure that Diseth was charismatic enough, but he did do an excellent job of showing that tiny edge of danger and obsession beneath the average Joe exterior that, as we know from the media frenzy that surrounds so many heinous crimes, envelopes and protects most psychopaths living among us. They look, sound, and behave like the most run-of-the-mill people imaginable.
From my own very limited experience with attempts to protect my family from intimidation and harassment, I would say that the least realistic aspect of Gilman’s play is the police response that is depicted. It is much, much harder to get a restraining order than it appears here (I don’t believe an order can be issued against a person with whom the victim has not cohabitated), and basically law enforcement can do nothing until a physical attack occurs, by which time it can be too late. The horror of a situation like Theresa’s comes not just from the sudden destruction of identity and independence, but from the absolute helplessness of victim, friends, and police to prevent or terminate the harassment.
Boy Gets Girl only covers a few weeks chronologically, but its action occurs all over New York City - in a couple of different restaurants, in Theresa's office and in her apartment, in Kennkat's abode, in a hospital room - which has required Abe Phelps to design an extremely flexible set that borders on the spartan. While this simplicity allows for the scenes to be changed just as quickly as possible, the repeated black-outs still break the flow and tension of the drama, and are often anti-climactic. All that bumbling around in the dark just to take a chair off here and put a new one on there? The ideal solution would be revolve, which is impossible on the tiny stage of the Theater Barn.
Jonathan Knipscher has designed smart urban costumes which clearly delineate each character’s generation and socio-economic standing in the way that we country folks delicately eschew by all wearing the same slightly sloppy L.L. Beanery 24/7.
While Gilman has definite ideas about male/female relationships that she hammers home rather firmly in the course of the play, overall Boy Gets Girl is gripping, thought-provoking, and truly frightening. Once again the Theater Barn has dared, and succeeded, in straying quite far from the well-trodden path of safe-and-happy summer stock, and the opening night audience I attended with rewarded the cast with a standing ovation. Next up are a string of three musicals – Johnny Guitar, Violet, and Little Shop of Horrors – two of which are regional premieres and all of which have a definite edge to them. I can’t wait.
Boy Gets Girl runs through July 22 at the Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission and is definitely R-rated. I wouldn't bring kids under 16. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007