Yes, you can occasionally judge a book by its cover, and you can occasionally judge a play by its title. While that's certainly the case with The Dear Boy, which Second Stage is producing at the McGinn/Cazale as part of its New Plays Uptown series, it's also a tricky proposition: The title tells you both everything and nothing you need to know.
The words alone bespeak a precious, even condescending overtone to Dan O'Brien's play - doesn't this have to be a work in which it will be proved to us time and time again that the boy in question isn't really so dear after all? That's exactly what O'Brien and his director, Michael John Garcés, deliver, wrapped up in a package exhorting tolerance and acceptance of others' sexual identities.
And if the resulting play is ultimately almost too dear for its own good, there are times it deigns to rise above the commonplace and provide more than simply a feel-good message. The first scene even suggests hard-edged, unusual drama in depicting retiring high-school English teacher James Flanagan (Daniel Gerroll) confronting troubled yet gifted student James Doyle (Dan McCabe). The scene is a study in subtext: Flanagan has a taste for repression and his tastes run toward Faulkner and Joyce, and he feels threatened by the uninhibited Doyle, whose passionate writing doesn't tamp down his inner demons.
Doyle's writing is equally brilliant and challenging, and begins to unlock Flanagan's concerns about his own upbringing and sexuality; it also inspires worry for Doyle, who's begun bringing a gun to school, with the intent of either shooting Flanagan or himself. As the two grapple for control over the story and the weapon, the play quickly gains momentum and sustains it over the course of the tête-à-tête, which could otherwise lapse easily into melodrama. Given that laughs are also plentiful is this deadly serious scene, the play seems off to a solid start.
O'Brien, however, isn't satisfied. Flanagan makes off with Doyle's gun and retreats to a faculty holiday party, to allow us to see Flanagan's life in a more adult context. This includes his wrangling with his colleagues Richard (T. Scott Cunningham), who's been passed over for a prestigious teaching post because of his homosexuality, and Elise, a young, spunky woman who becomes increasingly aroused by Flanagan's power and vague sense of mystery and danger.
The party scene, though, is as tedious as the first scene is exciting, and seems to undo most of O'Brien's careful setup. It continues with Richard publicly chastising Flanagan for his policies (in a particularly strained moment for Cunningham, who delivers part of the speech standing on a chair), and ends as overt, garden-variety proselytizing completely at odds with the nuances of the Doyle-Flanagan pairing. The following scene, in which Flanagan and Elise run off to spend the night together, seems to have been scripted entirely so audience members not paying attention to the earlier scenes can have Flanagan's secrets spelled out for them.
The two scenes involving the Jameses are much more satisfying than these excursions into obviousness, feeling as if they come from another play entirely. Their literary allusions and precisely delineated, small-scale battles between modernism and traditionalism allow for a more complex, layered story that can still encompass issues of sexual identity or abuse; without them, this wouldn't be much more than another coming-out-of-the-closet play with nothing new to say.
Garcés's staging of the Flanagan-Doyle scenes is as weary as his work on the listless middle scenes is disproportionately energetic. He also feels constantly at odds with Wilson Chin's bookshelf-laden set, which purportedly depicts at least three different locales, but defines none of them well, and Ben Stanton's lighting, which seems equally confused as to what is happening when and where. Much the same can be said of Cunningham and Pourfar, who work hard to ground their characters, but have nothing to anchor them to.
McCabe, however, legitimately convinces as the tormented Doyle, who finds a father figure and a mentor where he least expects to. As Flanagan, Gerroll is erratic; he doesn't always have a firm grip on his lines, and his flagrant telegraphing of Flanagan's secrets in the show's earliest moments is perhaps less than ideal. But he nicely conveys Flanagan's debilitating confliction, and when it's allowed a target capable of firing back, Gerroll always hits a dramatic bull's-eye.
It's just when Flanagan speaks and acts for spurious purposes, as happens too often in the show's middle scenes, that he's as illegible as a faded page in an ancient volume. Still, his problems - as filtered through a younger, sharper version of himself - are prime dramatic content and make it impossible to completely close the book on The Dear Boy. It's just that, like most books and plays, it's at its best when the author tells you less and lets you discover and conclude more on your own.
The Dear Boy