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Boys' Life

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Boys' Life
Jason Biggs, Rhys Coiro, and Peter Scanavino.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Though the word "metrosexual" didn't yet exist when Howard Korder's Boys' Life premiered Off-Broadway in 1988, the concept certainly did. The Oprah Winfrey Show was already on the air, and men's feelings - as well as women's feelings about men's feelings - were already under close scrutiny. The barely coherent brute of the past, interested only in beer, football, and sex, was on the way out, and the moist-eyed family man on the way in. Korder's play, about three college friends trying to apply their ancient mindset to a new world, was ideal for showing us what was being lost - and what some would be glad to be rid of.

Now, with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy having come and gone, and men's baser qualities still being tamped down by society and the women who claim to love them, Boys' Life is, on one level, as relevant as ever. But discerning that from the new production that Michael Greif has directed at Second Stage won't be easy. His cast members - or at least those carrying the cross of a Y chromosome - already look and sound so acculturated that you can't help but think their revolution failed before it even got started.

Jason Biggs, Rhys Coiro, and Peter Scanavino might be ideal casting for a new approach to this same topic, as three just-starting-out men who revert to their inner Neanderthals after learning how unsustainable the façade of respectability can be. But for a play warning that man as he's existed for centuries is on the outs, they're too wholesome, too clean-cut, to convince as natural cads forced into unnatural behavior only when faced with overwhelming odds.

The problem is most evident with Coiro, whose character Jack is both the most outwardly mature (complete with wife and son) and the most inwardly adolescent (living vicariously through his friends' sexual conquests, wanting to borrow their apartment for secret trysts of his own). Yet the actor never gives you the sense that Jack is being stifled by his domesticity, that there's an anxious wolf just waiting to pounce on whatever soft flesh might come along. His every word, to men and women alike, is an act, too carefully coordinated to reveal instincts of any recognizable sort.

Biggs's impish charm is so cannily developed that you never experience his Phil struggling between youth and adulthood. His early encounter with a woman named Karen (Michelle Federer), with whom he had a brief fling a few months earlier, touches on loneliness of both the physical and the loftier spiritual variety. But for Biggs it all seems like just words, not so much that Phil understands or doesn't understand the tactical gobbledygook he's spewing, but that there's nothing there to comprehend. What he says registers as neither a ploy nor a desperate unveiling of his soul, making Phil more empty-headed than either empathetic or incurably horny.

Boys' Life
Betty Gilpin and Peter Scanavino.
Photo by Joan Marcus

The best match of performer and character are Scanavino and Don, both of whom evince the confused cluelessness of men trapped in a perpetual tug-of-war between women and themselves. Scanavino seems the most inherently sweet, the most germanely genuine, which lends an attractive aura of pathos to Don, who probably doesn't know (or care) what the word means. His dopey attempts to bed a waitress (Betty Gilpin), a random girl (Laura-Leigh), and then justify one to the other, are delightfully scattershot, the last refuges of someone who's failed at all the lying, and thus might as well tell the truth.

Don's journey to true adulthood centers the play, and Scanavino's committed performance relegates everyone else more to the periphery than is ideal. The women, who also include Stephanie March as a self-focused jogger and Paloma Guzmán as Jack's wife, also seem strangely ornamental here, more mile markers than guideposts alon gthe men's road to forced evolution. Only Gilpin stands out, and mostly because her character's emotional volume eclipses the others' - this production makes Korder's testosterone-fueled outing more than ever a man's-only world.

To make his production as much of a whirlwind tour of that world as possible, Greif has deleted the intermission and employed scenic designer Mark Wendland to devise a series of modular sets that fashion the restaurants and apartments of a big city from a series of rolling building blocks. The whirring velocity of those set pieces reminds you that the present, like the future, is constantly being built, but can't distract you from realizing the past has been toppled as well.

The era Boys' Life depicts is now as foreign to us as the 1970s were to Korder's characters. What's abundantly clear is that a play that in 1988 depicted real men as an endangered species now sees them not only as altogether extinct. Greif's production and those cast in it do little more than suggest that they were probably well worthy of that honor.


Boys' Life
Through November 9
Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd Street at 8th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Second Stage Theatre