Now playing at Circle Theatre is Julia Jordan’s “Boy,” which is tightly directed by Chris Arnold. The cast’s solid ensemble acting effectively brings to life five characters with curiously interwoven lives. Yet the gradual revealing of all the overlapping plot points and relationships is often frustrating.
John Wehrman portrays the title teen protagonist. But the drama also focuses upon another male character, a guy in his mid-30s, played by Steven Camara.
Camara is Mick, a charming slacker and failed actor who is seen climbing into his ex-girlfriend Sara’s bedroom window in the first moments of the play. He’d left her three years ago to pursue a New York acting career. But now, after not making it on Broadway, Mick’s back in the Twin Cities and wants to resume his relationship with her.
Sara, the former girlfriend played by Lindsay Nance, is now an advanced medical student and hospital research assistant who has moved on with her life. She tries to resist readmittinMick into her life and bed.
In the next scene when we meet the title character, Wehrman evokes feelings of simultaneous pity and revulsion. The 17-year-old is like some wounded feral animal. He’s sad and lonely and aggressive, even scary. He has stealthy eyes, yet a vacant, almost frozen face. He limps. In fact, his entire left side appears to be almost paralyzed as a result of having survived a teenage suicide pact that claimed the lives of some of his friends. Though he’s had a brutal past, he is presented as a gifted storyteller.
The boy met Mick online and has somehow inserted himself into Mick’s family.
Jordan’s play is essentially a mystery in which layers are gradually peeled away to reveal further secrets. But the total effect is rather like watching an accident on the highway. You can’t look away but are left wondering what you’ve gained from the experience.
The two parental roles are less showy but equally well portrayed. Dennis Newport is strong in a rather underwritten role as the caring but somewhat unstable therapist who’s evaluating the boy. The man suffers periodic panic attacks. Rula Sirhan Gardenier is especially intense as a frustrated community college instructor. She’s a strong woman, yet her barely suppressed anger simmers just below the surface. She’s unfulfilled in her career, stuck teaching literature in a not-so-challenging environment. Yet her prize pupil is this mysterious boy who’s just written a somewhat unfinished short story about a group suicide attempt.
She is also not thrilled about seeing her 30-something son enter her kitchen after an absence of three years. Mick inquires about his siblings: “Where is everybody?”
“They’ve grown up,” his mom answers. “They have homes.”
It’s difficult to provide much of a glimpse into this play without spoiling a lot of its secrets.
Mick, critical of his mother’s fondness for “The Mill on the Floss” by George Elliot (aka Mary Ann Evans), is especially antagonistic about the Victorian novel’s ending. The title character is challenged by endings, too, and so apparently is the playwright.
The plot goes backward and forward, presumably because it can. I’m aware that Jordan is a hot new playwright who’s scored a number of New York hits, yet I think there’s a level of pretentious, self-conscious artistry about this drama that works against it. Much of the storyline seems contrived and implausible. Why is a 17-year-old Iowa boy studying at a Minnesota community college while he’s being treated and evaluated by his lit instructor’s therapist husband?
There are also plot gaps or lapses, as if some of the details or back story had been omitted.
The title character, who used to go by the name “Pot Head,” often spouts anti-gay and homophobic slurs. Is this a case of protesting too much? He also babbles repetitively at times, yet his teacher is smitten by what she perceives to be his significant literary gifts. I assume the kid writes more adeptly than he speaks.
“Write about what you know,” they always say. Playwright Jordan, successful in the world of contemporary theatre, has certainly known failed actors like Mick. But other characters in her play are even more closely connected to her personal life. She’s the daughter of an English professor and a psychiatrist.
The production makes fine use of Circle’s intimate performance space. Bob Knuth’s set design amazingly incorporates five distinct locations ranging from a therapist’s office to the underside of a Mississippi River bridge.