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A Real Boy

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - August 6, 2017

Brian Michael
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp

It's too bad that the New York International Fringe Festival is on hiatus this year, because that would be a perfect venue for Stephen Kaplan's compelling and ambitious satire-with-a-heart, A Real Boy. Yet, while it is still well worth a visit, this plea for acceptance that might best be described as "Anti-Pinocchio" set in a kindergarten classroom, comes off as too much of a work-in-progress to fully justify its exposure to a more generalized audience in its commercial run at 59E59 Theaters.

In the play, two puppets (marionettes, handled and voiced by Brian Michael and Jason Allan Kennedy George) have adopted a human boy, Max (played at the performance I attended by Kelley Selznick). Max's kindergarten teacher, Terry (Jenn Remke), who is unaware of Max's background, is concerned because the boy dresses all in black "like a depressed emo high school student" and refuses to use any colors in the drawings he makes in class, only black. With the reluctant consent of the school's principal (Jamie Geiger), Terry arranges to meet with Max's parents. It's only when they show up that she (and we) learn that they are puppets.

It is at this juncture that A Real Boy veers off into far too many directions for the audience to be able to fully track. The main storyline sets up a confrontation between the puppet parents and the teacher, who they believe is prying into something that is not her concern. Max's family (or, at least, his father), suspicious of the teacher's motives, insists that if the other children are making fun of Max, then it is their parents who should be brought in. Otherwise, the teacher should mind her own business.

Things devolve quickly as Max's parents demand that he be moved to another classroom, and Terry digs in her heels, determined to "protect" Max from his overbearing father. Crying "child abuse" and citing the doctrine of "in loco parentis," Terry turns her classroom into a sanctuary, keeping Max with her and refusing to allow his parents to take him home. Things are further complicated as the parents' cause is taken up by a publicity-seeking attorney (Katie Braden), while Terry is championed by an equally camera-ready politician (Danie Steel). Things come to a head when Max starts to grow strings, leaving everyone in an uproar until the playwright comes up with a warm-hearted ending that has you wondering about the symbolism of what it means to be a "puppet."

A Real Boy contains some wonderfully absurd situations and dialog, possibly drawing inspiration from Rhinoceros, Eugène Ionesco's satirical work about conforming to social norms. But neither the director, Audrey Alford, nor the diverse cast have quite figured out the tone or the direction they want to go with this. The plot, which calls for a considerable degree of "suspending disbelief" on the part of the audience, needs to be more sharply focused, and the characters need to be more clearly drawn. In particular, the puppet parents are all but drowned out by the teacher, the attention-seeking lawyer, and the politician who dominate much of the second act.

There also seems to be a great deal of subtext in keeping with the socially-significant missions of the cooperating production companies involved. The Ivy Theatre Company is committed to producing works "by, for, and about underrepresented voices," and the partnering Athena Theatre, supports works with a focus on "gender, politics, race, and religion." All of these goals seem to be addressed in some fashion during the play. But In terms of reaching an audience, even one that shares these values, the play is in sore need of honing and polishing in order to escape its thematic tug-of-war and to give more attention to the besieged five-year-old boy and his family, who nearly get lost in the shuffle. If we are going to invest emotionally in a puppet family, then that's where attention needs to be paid.

A Real Boy
Through August 27
59E59 Theater C, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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