Thursday, May 22, 2008

Bad Boys

Good Boys and True
By Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Directed by Scott Ellis
Starring Christopher Abbott, Betty Gilpin, Kellie Overbey, Brian J. Smith, J. Smith-Cameron, Lee Tergeson

Second Stage Theatre
307 West 43rd Street

Brian J. Smith and
J. Smith-Cameron
(photo: Joan Marcus
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s Good Boys and True seems like an anachronistic throwback, but this admittedly conventional play is so well-constructed that it’s hard to resist its dramatic pull. Scott Ellis’s fine production at the Second Stage Theatre is also a plus.

Set at the well-heeled St. Joseph’s Prep School in Washington, D.C. in 1988, the play concerns Brandon, a star football player and one of the school’s elite students. His father, Michael, is a St. Joseph’s alum, and both he and Brandon’s mother Elizabeth are doctors. One day, Brandon’s coach and Michael’s longtime friend, Mr. Shea, calls Elizabeth into his office. He tells her that a videotape of two teenagers having sex has surfaced, and that the male looks suspiciously like Brandon.

Everyone’s life is rocked by the scandal. The arrogant Brandon -- who always gets what he wants, including acceptance into Dartmouth -- is knocked down, and Elizabeth belatedly realizes the truth about her beloved son and the world she and her husband have created for him.

Aguirre-Sacasa touches on many themes, including privilege vs. morality, while telling a highly dramatic story in a scant 85 minutes. He achieves this through telescoping and abridgement. For example, Brandon's father never appears, and the only students we see are Brandon and his gay best friend, Justin.

The conversational dialogue insures that histrionics will have no part in this play. That dialogue rings true, whether it’s the high school banter between Brandon and Justin -- whose relationship is closer than others realize -- or Elizabeth’s tearful confession to her son, which links Brandon’s transgression with other serious mischief in the school's past.

It’s no coincidence that Good Boys and True is set in 1988 in D.C., at the height of Reagan-era hypocrisy. Young men like Brandon and his father before him simply do not feel responsible for their actions, no matter who is hurt or destroyed by them. (Derek McLane’s witty sets contrast the school and home settings with dozens of surrounding shelves stacked with polished athletic trophies.) While this is certainly not news, the irresponsibility and immorality of the current Bush era has kept it relevant.

Scott Ellis directs a fast-paced production. One of the best scenes is that in which Elizabeth confronts Brandon's teenage female victim, Cheryl Moody. However implausible such a meeting may be, the scene is persuasive and hard-hitting through a combination of deft writing, direction, and acting.

Though Betty Gilpin is onstage for only a few minutes as Cheryl, she helps make the character one of the most fully realized in the play. Kellie Overbey gracefully plays Elizabeth’s sister Maddy, a teacher at nearby high school, and Lee Tergeson is appropriately brusque as Coach Shea.

Christopher Abbott’s Justin eschews campiness as comic relief, instead functioning as Brandon’s conscience. Brian J. Smith’s Brandon is a handsome jock who thinks he can get away with anything -- until now. As for J. Smith-Cameron, this accomplished actress invests Elizabeth with such intelligence and steeliness that it’s arresting to watch the very core of her being shift when her son’s actions force her to re-evaluate her comfortable life.

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