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Wild Animals You Should Know

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jay Armstrong Johnson, John Behlmann, and Gideon Glick.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

"Be Prepared," runs the famous motto of the Boy Scouts of America, and that's particularly good advice with respect to Thomas Higgins's new play about the Scouts and Scouting, Wild Animals You Should Know. No, you don't need to bother digging out your old Bowie knife or brushing up on your knot tying if you see this MCC Theater production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Steeling your patience and fluffing your pillow, on the other hand, would not be bad ways to go.

That's because, despite the earnest efforts of director Trip Cullman and his game cast, this play is all clich├ęs, all the time. Take, for example, just the premise. Once you know that two of the lead characters are gay, can't you plot out in your head the places an unadventurous dramatist would take them, the conflicts he would unleash on them, and the messages he would use them to impart? Higgins never diverges from exactly that template, and uses the BSA's attitude toward, and treatment of, gay Scouts and Scoutmasters as the beginning, middle, and end of his story, without making any of those concepts his own—or interesting—along the way.

The closest he comes is with the relationship between Jacob (Gideon Glick) and his best friend, Matthew (Jay Armstrong Johnson). The former is an exemplary high-school Scout, good at everything the group stresses. He's also apparently already out of the closet. Matthew is good looking and heterosexual, or so he says; that's a bit hard to believe given how willing he is do an over-Skype striptease as a birthday present for Matthew. An openly gay boy who's managed to stay in the Scouts and an openly straight boy who doesn't mind acting gay are, indeed, unusual inventions, however rigorous a workout they may give your suspension of disbelief.

While the two are hanging out one night, just sort of casually looking out the window, they're more than a little surprised to see their Scoutmaster, Rodney, carnally engaged with another man. (Good thing he lives next door.) So when Rodney (John Behlmann), takes the boys on a trip to the woods along with Matthew's dad, Walter (Patrick Breen), the inevitable confrontation involves Matthew threatening to rat on Rodney unless he, er, tells Matthew how much he wants him?

Rodney's life predictably implodes, leaving Matthew's bond (or lack thereof) with his father to drift toward the center of the narrative. They, it turns out, are the beasts of the title: Matthew because of the terrible things he's willing to do just to see if he can, Walter because he so indifferently raised the boy. This means that the true alpha male, whichever he may be, must reassert his dominance, which happens in the unlikely clime of Matthew's room, by way of what is best described as a growling contest.

Any insights Higgins may have to dispense about parenting or mankind's inherent animalistic nature is lost amid such ridiculousness, and is hardly aided by including two other weak-spined characters: Larry (Daniel Stewart Sherman), a drunken dad also involved in the Scouts, and Marsha (Alice Ripley), Matthew's mom and reaching the limits of her tolerance with her husband's and son's foolishness. At one point, to demonstrate how much she belongs in the club, she chugs an entire can of beer in one gulp then tries (and fails) to smash it on her forehead. No, credibility is not one of Higgins' chief concerns, and Cullman's fluid staging on Andromache Chalfant's ever-sliding set cannot provide it.

That's the most blinding problem with Wild Animals You Should Know: No one feels real. With the exception of Glick, who effects just the kind of broad swishiness Jacob as written needs to have, none of the actors is ideally cast. They're all doing what they can, and Breen, by virtue of a role that veers closer to sympathetic than the others, occasionally projects a recognizable, if wan, near-sensitivity. But they're all tasked with playing stereotypes, from the privileged and spoiled brat to the flouncy sissy to the testosterone-spewing drunk to the saintly gay castoff to the powerless dad and mother. If anything they experienced or espoused was original, this type of grounding familiarity might work. But as it is, this is a stentorian tract that thinks the status quo is something to simultaneously mock and embrace.

Higgins may be suggesting that an institution as set in its ways and beliefs as the BSA reduces everyone in or near it to one-dimensional enablers, but his target could be more elemental still. The Playbill lists the action as being set in that preternaturally nonspecific bugaboo location, "the suburbs." So this is another jackhammer to the head of anyone who doesn't live in the more enlightened city? Given how empty, and usually flat-out stupid, everyone is, that's every bit as likely.

Whatever Higgins is trying to say, he winds up saying nothing. That's a shame, because the matter of the Scouts and how (or even if) they fit into the present-day world is a rich subject deserving a thoughtful, cohesive, in-depth treatment. But by scribing only a vague hit piece, Higgins has encouraged no new thoughts or dialogue. What he's done instead is ensure that making it through to the end of Wild Animals You Should Know is an achievement worthy of a merit badge.

Wild Animals You Should Know
Through December 11
Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street between Bleecker and Bedford Streets
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes, with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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