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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Rebecca Rittenhouse and Bobby Steggert
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Trembling hands tell the whole tale. One is placed on the inner thigh as a sign of intense affection. Another reaches out, desperate for connection. When slammed against the chest, one reflects a far more pungent and hollow loss than words can convey. In each of these cases and many more, the stripped-raw human beings in Anna Ziegler's captivating new play Boy, which Keen Company is presenting at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, are striving to express or uncover identity. And their quest—which, one way or another, resonates with the desire we all have to know or be known—creates what is already a chief contender for the most insightful, gut-wrenching, and beautiful play of 2016.

That it's also destined to rank among the year's most difficult to watch is a testament to what it gets right rather than what it gets wrong. For in telling her based-on-true-events story, Ziegler (A Delicate Ship, Dov and Ali) does not even allow us the wonder of discovery to hide behind; we know from the get-go what the stakes are. An early twentysomething named Adam (Bobby Steggert) meets Jenny (Rebecca Rittenhouse) at a party and seemingly instantly falls for her. Mere moments later, a middle-aged man (Paul Niebanck) calls to a 6-year-old girl named Samantha and asks her to sit down; Adam crosses the stage and does just that, and begins what a basic counseling or assessment session. In the very next scene, Trudy and Doug (Heidi Armbruster and Ted Köch) are writing the same man, Dr. Wendell Barnes, about their son whose penis was mutilated in a medical circumcision accident, asking if he could help him—Samuel—live more happily as a girl.

No secret is made that Adam was both that baby and Samantha. Or of Wendell's dual motives of making the best of a tragedy while pursuing his own academic studies into the nature of gender and sexual identification. Or of Adam's parents' deep and abiding love for him, as tempered by their fears of making a cataclysmic mistake. Or of how Adam perceives Jenny, who's had plenty of her own troubles and a son of her own (Brian, who's now four, and to whom Adam takes an instant liking), as being the salvation he needs after growing up knowing little but lying and pain. And, obviously, you know that eventually Samantha's secret is exposed and Adam takes her place.

What's remarkable, though, is how Ziegler and her director, Linsay Firman, craft suffocating tension, unbearable dread, and overwhelming agony from these plot points without obscuring them, and yet still keeping each its own walloping surprise. It's not that the details are predictable (they're not). But because, after Ziegler has laid out the initial precepts, every scene is about how much someone will learn or reveal, and what the impact that will have on all the other coincident relationships, you're constantly unearthing new facets to the drama and being asked to look at everything fresh—and that makes this play dazzlingly, deliciously alive from start to finish.

Heidi Armbruster, Ted Köch, and Paul Niebanck
Photo by Carol Rosegg

So as Jenny grows to care for Adam and becomes fraught with worry and distrust about something she knows he isn't telling her, the urgency skyrockets. Samantha's monthly "meetings" with Wendell, which stretch into her early adolescence, become terrifying in their frankness about what's said and what isn't, and as you witness how this young girl may be developing into something no one intended. All the expected confrontations*—Trudy and Jenny, Doug and Wendell, Adam and Wendell, Adam and Jenny, and more—occur, but never unfold as you expect. Because these are real people who are being thrust into the most challenging situation imaginable, and what do you do when everyone's intentions are good but all their choices are bad?

Even through Ziegler leaps frantically about in time, from the early 1990s to when Adam was a baby in the late '60s and various vantage points in between, she keeps the thread of narrative and development so steady that you can't lose it—you can only lose yourself in the tapestry of heartbreak and redemption that's woven as a result. And Firman's ceaseless, seamless staging captures the fluidity and impermanence of memory so well that you will feel as though you've lived a lifetime with these people. (Sandra Goldmark's set, which blends the bare essentials of a living room with an upside-down fantasy version hanging from above, underscores the wonder, and is superbly energized by Nick Francone's lighting.)

Every member of the cast is sumptuously honest in their portrayals. Armbruster and Köch have drenched their characters in confused confliction, and show the corrosive effects of it: They're all but literally eaten away as the years pass and their earlier decisions become increasingly impossible to ignore or escape. Niebanck combines the cool, clinical detachment of an opportunist you'd love to hate with the fatherly warmth of a man you can't, making Wendell his own kind of irresistible paradox. And Rittenhouse draws on each of Jenny's many wounds in constructing her, letting us see every tentative step on her long journey to trust and intimacy.

The true miracle here, however, is Steggert. This appealing young actor is hardly new on the scene; he's appeared in many musicals and plays both on and Off-Broadway (including 110 in the Shade, Ragtime, Big Fish, Mothers and Sons, and Yank!). But rarely has he hinted at the reserves he draws on here for what is a career-defining performance. There's the external work, which is impressive enough: For 90 sustained minutes, he shows you a natural man fighting off an unnatural girl, who keeps creeping into his voice (a near-falsetto lilt punctuating his flat Midwestern accent) and movements (a flutter of hands that does not exactly scream "straight man"), and no matter what year you're watching, the character is drawn with laser-sharp precision.

More fascinating still is the eternal battle Steggert hints at going on beneath the skin. The way Samantha rebels, from the eyes outward, against her distaste for the novel Jane Eyre, despite Wendell's attempts to nudge her into its adoration. Or, when Samantha is reading Wendell's favorite poem, "Jenny Kissed Me" (by James Leigh Hunt), the barely noticeable subtlety of her trying to brush away the dangerous feelings it stirs. Or how he navigates a dozen layers of tangled deception when Adam takes Jenny home to meet Mom and Dad. Or how he balances hero worship, betrayal, rage, and acceptance when Adam and Wendell meet, as their true selves, for the first time.

But perhaps Boy's most arresting element is its insistence that everyone around him is searching, just as he is, for who he or she ought to be. This idea manifests itself in ways small (as Trudy struggles to fashion appropriate sentences to describe Samantha's growing pains) and big (for unimpeachable reasons, Jenny makes an entrance dressed as a man at an inopportune time), but come together as a stirring reminder that Adam is far from alone.

We're all on a similar journey, even if (hopefully) most of us never have to endure what he must. Discovering who we are may take a lifetime, Ziegler cautions, but there's no more rewarding pursuit. And expect it to be a long while before there's another play more rewarding, more moving, and more magical than Boy.

Through April 9
Clurman Theater, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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