With her new play Boy, now playing at Primary Stages, Julia Jordan has proved that she's adept at finding pockets of serene order in an otherwise chaotic world. Her talent results in a quiet, beautiful play that moves (in many senses of the word) almost without your being aware of it.
Her success is due to the small but complex matrix of characters she has assembled for her story about a group of people unable to connect emotionally with each other. Jordan presents all her puzzle's pieces right away, but assembles the final picture so meticulously that it's not until the end of the last scene that you understand everything that's happened, and why.
Jordan's characters, whose lives intertwine over the course of one day in the Twin Cities, include Mick (Kelly AuCoin), a failed actor returning in shame to the life he left behind; his ex-girlfriend Sarah (Miriam Shor), a medical student who's moved on with her life; Maureen (Caitlin O'Connell) and Terry (Robert Hogan), respectively an Introduction to Literature instructor at a community college and a therapist, and Mick's parents; and a troubled young man referred to only as "Boy" (T.R. Knight).
Jordan has so tightly constructed her characters and situations that unraveling them without spoiling the surprises is difficult. In brief, Maureen mothers both Mick and Boy in efforts to help them enhance their innate writing gifts, while supporting and coping with her very unstable husband. Terry is counseling Boy, a talented but unmotivated writer, who lost the use of the left side of his body following a series of otherwise unexplained group suicide attempts.
There are few unconnected links between the characters, and these complexities may often make Boy's story seem daunting. Close attention and listening are requirements, not recommendations, but perseverance is rewarded - Jordan plays no games. She never dangles plot or character development just out of your reach; you always have just what you need when you need it, and her great care enriches the play. Director Joe Calarco, apparently perfectly in tune with Jordan's rhythms and ideas, does his part in keeping the staging clear and the pace up, and the set (Michael Fagin), costumes (Anne Kennedy), and lights (Chris Lee) also contribute to the production's seamless feel.
At the center of the show is an almost unrecognizable T.R. Knight, giving one of the most distinguished performances of his still-young career. From the dragging of his left foot to the half-constricted sound of his voice, the physical characterization he gives Boy is excellent, though it's matched by his emotional portrayals, in which you can almost hear the inner workings of his mind and soul grinding away as he attempts to figure out everyone around him, and himself. Knight's work is thoroughly convincing throughout.
The other roles, while less showy, are equally well performed. Hogan nicely portrays an adult analogue to Boy, and makes Terry's loss-of-control scene at the end the first act one of the most harrowing physical breakdowns since Alan Bates's masterful drunk scene in Fortune's Fool two years ago. O'Connell brings quiet strength and barely suppressed rage to Maureen, while AuCoin's Mick is clever mixture of broken and optimistic. Despite having little stage time, Shor makes a big impression as Sarah, who can move away from Mick in her mind, but not her heart.
But Sarah is vital - no other character more visibly demonstrates the important internal confliction Jordan is examining: that of desiring a better life and believing it to be obtainable, but lacking the knowledge of how to make it happen. This is brought up time and again in different guises: Sarah describes the almost magical qualities of a certain type of cancer in which body parts can form inside tumors, a suggestion of all the surprising possibilities life has to offer; Maureen exhorts everyone to examine the beginning, middle, and end of all stories - including their own - to make sure each ending is the best it can be.
The sadness of Boy comes from the characters' unwillingness to believe they can give what they need, or that others will accept it when offered. Jordan doesn't let up on her characters until she's broken down their arguments brick by painful brick, and presented them with at least the possibility of hope. Boy states all the characters' feelings very accurately late in the play: "Disappointing people is our thing." Perhaps, but none of them disappoints us.