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Good Boys and True

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Brian J. Smith and J. Smith-Cameron.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Reception on the good-ol'-boy network is more than a little fuzzy in Good Boys and True, the new play by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa that just opened at Second Stage. The rampant static only occasionally dissolves to reveal the salacious center of this coming-and-going-of-age drama, which might be sexually charged but tends to short out on its own agenda.

This glimpse inside the tangled web of a Jesuit high school in the late 1980s attempts to dissect the question of how family legacies propagate an elitism that threatens to tarnish the future before it's removed from its mold. But whatever your experiences with, or feelings about, such matters, expect them to be more varied and complex than those in this intriguing but simpleminded treatment, which is always phrased and fashioned as though it's got a mighty axe to grind.

The woman who wields that weapon, if unknowingly at first, is Elizabeth Hardy (J. Smith-Cameron). She's more or less the product of this environment - her husband Michael was a student at the all-male St. Joseph's, the high school her son Brandon (Brian J. Smith) now attends. She's seen first-hand the pattern of the weave of this tight-knit brotherhood of well-off young men poised to become America's next power players, but she's never before needed to wrap herself and her family in its blanket of protection.

Brian J. Smith and Christopher Abbott.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Once Brandon is accused of making and distributing a videotape showing him all but raping a teenage girl, however, that all ends. The boy's face is obscured, so no one can prove it's Brandon - but there's reason enough to throw St. Joseph's politically minded football coach (Lee Tergesen), Elizabeth's sister Maddy (Kellie Overbey), and Brandon's friend Justin (Christopher Abbott) into confusion and doubt. It doesn't help that Justin's relationship with Brandon is close enough to spur a different set of rumors, not exactly in keeping with the school's old-fashioned ideals or Brandon's serious inner-circle girlfriend, Erica.

It doesn't take long for Aguirre-Sacasa to fire up the wrecking ball for purposes of demolishing the sexual and social taboos on which the entire St. Joseph's culture is constructed, and he gets in a few brightly polished swipes while fashioning his fascinating surface-level study. As directed by Scott Ellis, on a glamorous Derek McLane set that radiates outsized achievement with every glint from the dozens of trophies lining every wall, the action moves at a breakneck pace that envelops you in each of the scandal's new developments with the arresting immediacy of a breaking-news broadcast.

But the play is filled more with sound bites than solid craftsmanship, and this becomes harder to hide whenever it dares to linger too long on a specific issue. Its statements and solutions are as simplistic as its characters: Elizabeth has no compunction against opening her eyes or even admitting her own complicity after decades of silence. The coach is on hand apparently only to show where unchecked corruption as a youth can lead. Even Brandon's young victim, Cheryl (Betty Gilpin), is essentially a megaphone for indicting an entire class that's been victimized by the well-connected rich.

More problematic still is that two vital characters are never seen, and receive little more than glancing references when they deserve scene-length soliloquies. That Erica never appears leaves a gaping void in the middle of the examination of femininity in this phallocentric society that Elizabeth begins, Cheryl completes, and Maddy shuns. And the utter absence of Brandon's dad is like a football team missing its quarterback, never allowing for an in-depth exploration of what these privileged young men inherit with their Y chromosomes, something that would make this story about fraught outsiders seeking institutional reformation more universal and more useful.

The actors, too, spend most of their time spinning their wheels, seldom able to gain a grip on the personalities they're portraying. Only Abbott's caged-animal performance properly balances wounds and outrage; Gilpin, Overbey, and Tergesen generally stick to one side or the other, with predictably off-kilter results. Smith is too sturdy and too knowing, and lacking the upturned-noses breeding, to convince as a boy who's been sheltered within the nicest homes. It's not that you don't believe he would do what he's accused of, but that the very idea is beyond his emotional capabilities.

Smith-Cameron, usually a reliable essayer of razor-sharp women, is likewise lost in the muddle that is her piecemeal character. She evinces little of the concern - for Brandon, for her husband, for the way of life crumbling around her - that would anchor Elizabeth as the bellwether for change in the eye of her personal hurricane. Too often, Elizabeth seems like an at-sea actress in a role constantly rewriting itself, unsure of what version of the script she's supposed to be following.

That's a powerful idea that deserves to be developed further, and would make Good Boys and True far more compelling than it currently is. Everyone, seen or unseen, is some sort of casting mistake at the auditions for a truly successful life. Unfortunately, Aguirre-Sacasa is less interested in the path to greatness than the tumble from it, so it's unsurprising that in this freefall of a play there's nary a parachute to be found.

Good Boys and True
Through June 1
Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd Street at 8th Avenue
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