Those who have visited Idaho might be a bit surprised by the mythic qualities lavished on it in David Folwell's new play, Boise. For two of the characters in the play, which is at the Rattlestick Theater through July 18, the play's titular city is the answer to escaping the vicious rat race experienced by so many of the deluded souls that call Manhattan home.
That focus on Idaho as a contemporary Shangri-la is about the most interesting thing in Folwell's unfocused play. The rest of it treads familiar waters without finding many new ways to express itself, despite behaving (under Rob Bundy's direction) like a quirky, risqué comedy.
But many of those quirks and surprises seem manufactured, as if Folwell wants to force levity on an otherwise dark subject - in this case, the descent of a man named Stewart (Christopher Burns) from a life of chaotic freedom into a life of unnaturally imposed order. The results are mixed.
It all begins when Stewart, essentially a corporate drone, meets Tara (Lucia Brawley), a free-spirited coworker from the Human Resources department. Not approving of marriage - but also not unwilling to just violate it - she turns on Stewart emotionally (with their frank discussions about love and sex) and intellectually (by introducing him to the works of Bertrand Russell), while always enjoying remaining tantalizingly out of reach.
It's when Stewart begins taking her flirtations seriously that his life goes downhill - he finds himself becoming less able to communicate with his wife Val (Geneva Carr), his bar-hopping friend Owen (Alex Kilgore), and his coworker Bill (Matt Pepper). He similarly finds himself growing more attached to his sister, Jackie (Tasha Lawrence), who has the freedom of movement and loving he increasingly begins to feel he sacrificed when he got married.
Much of the play centers on the relationship Stewart has with his sister - the two can, and do, talk about almost anything. Folwell even dramatizes a number of the dysfunctional relationships in which Jackie finds herself, including a Bohemian musician and a male fitness fetishist who blindfolds her so that he can feed her health food. While these scenes seem intended to point up the differences in the ways Jackie and Stewart handle their personal relationships - and to build to a messy confrontation between the two at the play's climax - they're woven into the story haphazardly at best.
Boise is better when it focuses on the Stewart-Val-Tara relationship, which comes to an unexpectedly compelling head at an office Christmas party. It helps that Carr and Brawley give particularly layered performances and that they're depicted as both physical and ideological opposites (Lawrence's Jackie, not inappropriately, is somewhere in between). Less effective is Burns's portrayal, which telegraphs too much of his character's encroaching insanity too early, resulting in less a transformation than would be ideal.
The other performers are fine (particularly Pepper, who vanishes into a wide variety of ensemble parts), as is Bundy's direction. He never allows the pace to flag, and keeps up the energy through the use of a number of representative set pieces (courtesy of scenic designer Wilson Chin) to allow the actors to move fluidly from location to location. Peter Hoerburger's lights, Brian Russman's costumes, and Fitz Patton's sound are all fine.
The primary problem with Boise is that there are few fresh creative elements in Folwell's storytelling; that makes it difficult to assign much relevancy to the tale of a man too eager to have it all at any cost. Stewart's arguments in favor of - and eventually against - marriage, for example, seem fabricated rather than real. As Stewart's humanity is slowly (and choppily) replaced by his baser, more animalistic urges, it becomes more difficult to sympathize with him, likely the opposite of Folwell's intent.
As for the city of Boise, it's but one of many fantasies that Tara encourages Stewart to grab onto; when he does, it becomes far more important to him than it is to her. For her, dreaming is enough - Stewart believes he has to do or, quite literally, die. Why Folwell chose that particular city for his play is never satisfactorily answered; it's but one of many issues he doesn't address with the specificity that might make Boise better. Let's hope the Idaho tourism bureau doesn't mind.
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater