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All the Fine Boys

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 1, 2017

Alex Wolff and Isabelle Fuhrman
Photo by Monique Carboni

Love and sex are complicated at any age, but they're especially so for adolescents who lack the experience, wisdom, and good judgment needed to properly wrangle their simmering feelings. Erica Schmidt's play for The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center, All the Fine Boys, tackles this head-on by examining a trio of linked relationships that represents what it means to be a teen girl in love, with all the dizzying highs, terrifying lows, and mediocre middles. One wishes she hadn't lingered so long on the last, however.

The most compelling of these stories is the one that unfolds between the two 14-year-old girls themselves. Jenny (Abigail Breslin) and Emily (Isabelle Fuhrman) are typical 1980s kids who like renting movies (primarily horror flicks), having sleepovers, and eating junk food, and are most content to do it together. During the latest of these outings, they commiserate about their problems with parents and, of course, the sex they're not yet having. The two complement each other well, with the somewhat trashy Jenny, who comes from a religious family, standing in muddy opposition to the cleaner-cut, marginally more sophisticated Emily.

Their lack of commonalities is erased during the time they spend together—that's how good friendships work, after all—and is replaced by playful arguments about minutiae from food to movies (ugh, can you imagine watching one again if you've already seen it?) that, though neither wants to admit it, readily reveal how mature neither one of them is. Not mature enough to have sex, that's for sure—not that that's likely to stop them. And not that it matters: Schmidt makes clear, through both her writing and her tight, weighted staging on Amy Rubin's antiquated-swank living-room unit set, that each of these girls can only truly count on the other to provide what she needs most.

The value of this knowledge, from them as well as us, becomes more evident when the pair splits to pursue the pastime of coupling. The boy in whom Emily is interested, Adam (Alex Wolff), is a high school senior who's renowned through the halls for his creative, sensitive poetry (he wrote a particularly meaningful and intractable one about losing his virginity) and a way with women that's as romantic (or at least faux-romantic) as he pretends to be inspirational and deep. That he doesn't actually know more than anyone else his age is irrelevant; he's able to convince Emily he does, and that's all that matters if his goal is to get her into bed, right?

Maybe not. As Emily slowly unveils her hidden shallowness over the several days they spend together, Adam displays an awareness of boundaries and propriety that are very different than outward appearances may suggest. In truth, we don't have him figured out because he doesn't have himself figured out—he only thinks he does, and that's a lot less significant in the real world Adam is about to enter than it is in high school.

Abigail Breslin and Joe Tippett
Photo by Monique Carboni

There's something somber, even moving, about how they each break down in their own ways because of what the other is unable to give, which is only amplified by Wolff's carefully orchestrated (and intentionally underdeveloped) elitist mien, and the innate urges Fuhrman allows Emily to only partially suppress. It would play better still if Adam weren't so irritating, so proto-hipster, that his appeal (if any) beyond his mock-inspirational babble were easier to understand; as it is, Adam becomes human only when life leaves him no other choice, a development that comes too late to have the impact it should.

Still, it's more than we get from the tale of Jenny's tryst with Joseph (Joe Tippett), a hot "older" (he's 28) technician at the local nuclear power plant. This is a mystery of sorts, rather than an existential exploration, but one in which the questions are iffy. Jenny has made some firm decisions about what she wants from Joseph, but there's a fogginess about the source of her expectations that she'll receive them. He's devoutly Catholic and Jenny knows him from church—what does she think is going to happen?

What transpires puts the lie to the claims both make with each other, invariably in exhausted ways that can't go anywhere fresh. (Joseph, for example, is ready to condemn almost anything as a sin, but can you possibly guess what one thing he's totally okay with?) The point seems to be that, under the wrong circumstances, girls can grow up too fast—and too dangerously—but the scenario as constructed here stretches credulity past the breaking part, and doesn't engage our sympathy at all.

It might if it were easier to care about Jenny. But the crippling indifference that's her foremost trait does not naturally lead to relatability if the performer tasked with playing it can't give it a jolt of life. And Breslin, who's most well known for playing the title character in the 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine, can't: She just wallows in it, without tying it to anything specific in the girl's psychology, which would be critical for the slam-bang changes she undergoes to fit into the narrative. Breslin doesn't show us how this bored and boring girl can also be amorous, blissful, scornful, and violent—as a result, Jenny makes no sense whatsoever.

Tippett saves all this; he's excellent as Joseph precisely because he does build those connections. His sunny, sexy demeanor justifies both how Joseph attracts Jenny, what he hides from her, and why he goes to the lengths he does to keep it concealed, and Tippett progresses smoothly and subtly through each layer of Joseph's personality until we're mired in the rotten core beneath at the moment we need to be there. He's good enough, in fact, that it almost doesn't matter that he can't surmount the man's scattered, unconvincing backstory or bewildering internal contradictions.

That's all on Schmidt, and so, ultimately, is the fact that, despite adroit isolated moments throughout, the play as a whole is richly unsatisfying; the men simply can't compete with the women, and are given far too many opportunities to prove it. In alternating the scenes depicting these two largely disconnected and sketchy romances, Schmidt is apparently trying to paint a single, larger picture of young womanhood that reinforces how Jenny and Emily only truly excel when they're together. There's enough color, contrast, and detail in that conceit to drive a play much longer than this one (it runs only 100 minutes), but without this or some other animating concept at its center, All the Fine Boys is monochromatic at best.

All the Fine Boys
Through March 26
Ford Foundation Studio Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral