Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
A Picture of Two Boys
Also see Patrick's recent review of The Red Shades
In A Picture of Two Boys, which opened this past weekend in a world premiere production at New Conservatory Theatre Center, both of the titular two boys are outsiders–but in very different ways. Marky (Leon Jones) is Black and gay, with a sunny, positive, even straitlaced outlook on life, ready to embrace the future–despite being a frequent target of bullies. Pete (Tim Garcia) is Latinx (specifically of Puerto Rican descent), drinks a little too much, hangs out with the emo kids, and seems to have little hope for a brighter future. He's also bullied–when he first appears on stage he's sporting a bit of a black eye, received after he called one of the football jocks a fag.
The two boys are besties of a sort, having met in kindergarten and united by their outsider status. They regularly escape to a boat dock on a river (wonderfully accomplished by scenic designer Micaela Kieko Sinclair, right down to the very realistic bird droppings), where they can talk about the challenges of being two kids of color in a very white Pennsylvania town, and muse about what the future might hold. Though the two have little in common besides their unpopularity and non-whiteness, they seem to enjoy the refuge each provides the other. Playwright Nick Malakhow has captured nicely the rhythms of teen speech. The boys spar with and interrupt each other, but it's mainly Pete who controls the conversation with his more aggressive, dominant personality.
Both Jones and Garcia are terrific in their roles. As Marky, Jones has an ebullient, joyous nature. Despite Marky's troubles, a smile is rarely far from his face, and he looks at the world with a gleam in his eye, as if he knows that his commitment to his studies will ultimately take him to a better place than a weathered dock in a backwater town. When he is working on an assignment for a summer photography class at a junior college, it's as though he is attempting to preserve the beauty that he sees–beauty to which Pete is unfortunately blind.
Garcia plays his role with an almost manic energy that he uses to cover the pain in Pete's life. (Pete also treats his pain with a plastic water bottle filled with vodka–"Absolut - the good stuff.") It almost feels like if Pete ever slowed down, he'd have to more completely face the stress in his current life, a seemingly bleak future, and a painful past that will be addressed in the second half of A Picture of Two Boys, which takes place ten years later, when Marky become Marcus and Pete turns into Peter.
Despite these fine performances, Malakhow's text lacks a strong sense of narrative in which his characters can operate. He raises a fascinating question: What is the best technique for surviving small town bigotry and homophobia? Suck it up and fly under the radar, or rebel? But he skips along the surface of that question, never really taking a strong position. Since Marcus ends up in a successful career, one could say Malakhow is making a case for "go along to get along," but despite his good job and somewhat classier clothes, Marcus is wounded by his past, as well. They are two survivors, bound together in shame, but the resolution Malakhow has created for them feels insufficient to heal their scars.
Technically, the show is excellent. The sound design (by Daniel Hall) evokes the riverside environment perfectly, with the burbling of water, the chirping and whir of crickets and other insects, and the songs of frogs. When Pete tosses his empty water/vodka bottle into the river, there is a perfectly timed and placed kerplunk. (In one of the funniest moments, Marky upbraids Pete for littering, which Pete then calls "my little plastic tragedy. Hey! That'd be a cool name for a band!")
There is an appealing gentle nature to A Picture of Two Boys, and it has several touching moments that will feel true to anyone who grew up as an outsider, as when Marcus says to Peter near the end of the play, "having you around felt a little bit safer in a town that wasn't very safe." But in future drafts, playwright Malakhow should work on clarifying his story arc to help audiences to better follow the growth of his two characters and the resolution to their story.
A Picture of Two Boys runs through November 27, 2022, at New Conservatory Theatre Center's Walker Theatre, 25 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco CA. Performances are Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $25-$65. For tickets and information, please visit NCTCSF.org or call 415-861-8972.