Are relationships like little more than a game of strategy? That's more or less what Boys and Girls, Tom Donaghy's new play at the Duke on 42nd, argues in depicting the entanglement of two men and two women in each others' lives.
At the same time, though, it presents love and dating today as an almost incomprehensible series of tactical maneuvers, but little else. Because of this, Boys and Girls keeps you at a significant emotional distance, making watching the play much like watching someone else's chess game - interesting or even exciting at times, but never something significant in your own life.
It's unfortunate that Boys and Girls fails to make its characters' problems really ring true for the audience, as there is a fair amount that does work. The performances from the play's four actors are all strong, and Donaghy and his director (Gerald Gutierrez) have fleshed them out enough to make them interesting and believable people. The pieces just don't always fit together.
But, for each of the characters, emotional stability is as vital as food and water might be, and they will all pursue it, with little regard for the cost. Reed and Jason (Robert Sella and Malcolm Gets) are the play's first couple, on-again/off-again lovers who are off at the start of the play, but not for very long. The second pair is Shelly and Bev (Carrie Preston and Nadia Dajani), who, raising a child and having just bought a new house, are apparently more significantly committed to each other. As you can probably guess, none of this lasts long.
But Donaghy spends most of the play just moving his characters into different configurations, apparently examining every possibility before presenting, at the second act curtain, the most inevitable of the available pairings, but far from the most creative or daring. Boys and Girls is at its most interesting (and dramatically effective) when the focus falls squarely onto the play's unseen fifth major character, Bev's son, but even then, the people onstage seem strangely disinterested and passive in the events affecting their lives.
The play breaks from this pattern twice, once focusing on Jason, drunk confronting Reed about the nature of their relationship, and once on Shelley making a painful phone call to her mother. These scenes register strongly, and Gets and Preston make the best impressions of the four performers as a result. Sella and Dajani seem like they should be the perfect match, but they lack the chemistry needed to really drive their moments home.
Then again, they don't always have much to work with. Donaghy spends much of the first act playing with language, giving his characters terse, staccato dialogue and letting them walk over each others' lines in a way that really underscores their relationships and familiarity. The second act is far more conventional, at times almost television-like, and too predictable as it zooms to its unsurprising - and not entirely welcome - conclusion. If Donaghy can't negotiate the connection between the acts, why should Gutierrez or the actors be expected to?
Douglas Stein and David Warner create an appropriate sparse and modern look for the play with the set and the lights, but it's not enough - the damage has been done elsewhere in the production. Boys and Girls tries to be provocative and relevant in dealing with modern relationships but never moves beyond the run-of-the-mill, too uneven and inert for the good of itself, or its audience.