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Summertime...Took a little vacation! Three reviews coming soon! Amazing Grace, Hand to God and Mamma Mia!

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Jeff

Monday, November 21, 2011

REVIEW: Wild Animals You Should Know

Wild Animals You Should Know.  Review of the Saturday, November 19 matinee preview performance at the Lucille Lortell Theatre in New York City.  1 hour, 40 minutes with no intermission.  Starring Gideon Glick and Jay Armstrong Johnson with John Behlmann, Patrick Breen, Daniel Stewart Sherman and Alice Ripley.  A new play by Thomas Higgins.  Directed by Trip Cullman.  Through December 11.


Grade: C+

One has to wonder if the benefit of the doubt still exists.  It sure is hard to give it in this day and age of Penn State/Joe Paterno, priests molesting altar boys and teachers caught on tape bullying their students.  It is easy to side with the alleged victims, especially when it seems that more and more the "alleged" become the "confirmed."  The nightly news and shows like To Catch a Predator have taught us as a society to distrust first and open our hearts later.  Add some unfortunate assumptions when circumstances reveal a secret, and you have a recipe for neighbors looking for a fight, families divided, and, possibly, a life destroyed, and you have what is at the core of Thomas Higgins' new play, Wild Animals You Should Know.

The play, which opened last night at MCC Theatre, mostly does what my favorite plays do: they entertain, leave you enough things to think about the current state of the human condition, and end on a note that leaves you with just enough ambiguity to leave you wanting a bit more.  Good plays also stay with you for awhile, popping in and out of your thoughts, and that this play certainly has done to me.  I have to admit that I left the theatre on Saturday feeling a little gypped by the playwright, who, at the very last minute adds one detail to the play's moderately intense final scenes.  As it stands, I thought it revealed a truth that sets in stone a character's fate, instead of leaving it up in the air for me to decide as a participant in this exchange.

The Boy Scouts of America motto: Be Prepared.

Of course, not all shows need to leave things somewhat open - a lot of times you need that closure.  But in a play that has a lot to do with making judgments based on little or no evidence beyond societal expectations, leaving certain characters up in the air would help prove the point I think Higgins is trying to make.  And so, as I said, I left feeling a tad ripped off.  Upon further thought, and a ferocious argument with my companion for the day, I realize that instead of confirming the obvious, that last minute detail really revealed that I am as guilty of making the same stereotypical judgments about others as everyone else.  It has been a rather large and bitter pill for me to swallow.  And so, Higgins has made a big point, even if I didn't realize it until days later.

The play is all about the difference between how things appear (and how we make assumptions based on that) and how things really are (and how those assumptions become evidence, true or not).  Matthew (Jay Armstrong Johnson) seems to be the perfect all-American son: blonde, physically fit, poised to become an Eagle Scout, all-State soccer player and valedictorian of his class.  His parents, who are probably never the subject of divorce rumors, also seem the perfect pair: they complement each other as in "the geek got the beauty queen," and they both support their son, but give him appropriate distance as parents of teens who read the manual do.  She (Alice Ripley) mixes homemaking with a career in real estate; he (Patrick Breen) has the classic 9 to 5 job with the requisite, but non-threatening, stress that goes with it.  (Think 21st Century Ozzie and Harriet, perhaps.)  Then there is Jacob (Gideon Glick), the openly gay best friend of Matthew.  Theirs is an adoring friendship - Jacob adores and is in love with Matthew; Matthew adores that Matthew is being adored.  (In the fifties or sixties, this role would have been played by a pretty-but-she-doesn't-know-it, bookish girl.)  And there is Larry (Daniel Stewart Sherman), comic relief personified, and the typical Boy Scout dad: father-son bonding never really comes to his mind, but it sure seems like he's there for Larry, Jr. and the troupe.  He's also a man's man, i.e. beer drinking, tit loving, swearing and burping his way through conversations.  Finally, there is the Scout Master (John Behlmann), who seems perfect for the job: he not only embodies the Boy Scout oath and code, but he fairly screams all-American man, rugged, but handsome, friendly, but distant.  He's the guy all the single ladies hope to land after a few years in the dating pool and it is time to get serious.

The Perfect Parents?

But what we have come to find out in America is that nothing in the Stepford-style suburbs is what it seems, and therein lies the conflict and impetus for the central action of the play.  Matthew is such a narcissist that he can gleefully admit it -but it has become of almost sociopathic proportions.  His parents don't have the perfect marriage - she pretty much runs the show, not for the power, but by necessity; he is ineffectual, but trying to a point.  And both are on the brink of losing it all - he has been fired and has no real prospects on the horizon, and she is in real estate today.  Enough said.  While it is nice to see an out and proud gay teen portrayed on stage, Jacob's unrequited love and a constant feeling of coming in second has left him an emotional wreck, with a seething anger on the verge of exploding.  Even Larry isn't what you might think, but in the opposite way - sure, his wife has left him (who wouldn't leave such a dim bulb?), but they have managed, despite separation, beer swilling and questionable educational background, to raise a decent kid.  And the Scout Master has a tragic past and a secret (cue unfounded assumptions).  When all of these worlds collide in an eventful camping trip, it really is important, as the Boy Scout manual says, to keep your eye out for the wild animals.  In this case, the "wild animals" are dangerous because you think you know them, but you don't.  Like I said, this play is all about appearance versus reality.

The cast itself is uniformly good, contributing much to the entertainment value of the piece.  Redneck Larry is given as much as possible here considering how relatively underdeveloped his part is, which is to the credit of actor Daniel Stewart Sherman.  And it is a pleasant surprise to see Alice Ripley in a role where she doesn't have to dominate the play.  She is quiet, very self-assured and quite funny as Matthew's mom, with just enough of the trademark Ripley crazy intensity to make her mother-protecting-her-cub scene believable.  Patrick Breen, so excellent in Next Fall and The Normal Heart does more terrific work here, in the role that undergoes the most changes.  His evolution from nebbish geek/ineffectual parent to commanding presence/challenger to his own son's ego is quite interesting and noticeable, even as the rest of the play whizzes by.

The Predator has trapped the Prey.
The weak looks on helplessly.

John Behlmann's character is the one I really wanted to know more about.  I'd like to have seen the strong man crumble, not just hear about it.  I'd like to have heard more about his back story - a truly sad point that goes by in one sentence, but might have been the key to understanding and even sympathizing with the guy.  But even given only what he has to work with, Behlmann gives a fully developed and emotionally complex performance.  Gideon Glick is a young actor that I always find captivating no matter the size or quality of the role.  In lesser hands, Jacob could have become that typical gay friend with a quick wit and a sharp tongue.  Instead, we have a kid growing comfortable in his own skin, who delivers his one-liners with an angsty undertone.  He is funny to be sure, but Glick never lets us forget that Jacob is frustrated and angry in matters of the heart and of life.  Jacob's unrequited love is what keeps him back, and he doesn't want to admit the truth - even if he can get Matthew to be in love with him, Jacob will always be a second fiddle.   And Jay Armstrong Johnson gives a strong, sensual and appropriately calculated performance as master manipulator/sexually ambiguous egomaniac Matthew.  He navigates this tricky character well, seducing us with his strip teases that book end the show.  He makes us hate him for how rotten he is to his best friend and for his dangerous plot to destroy another human being.  And perhaps most interestingly, he allows us the opportunity to sympathize with Matthew and even feel sorry for him.  How much sympathy you personally feel depends, I suppose, on how much of your own life has been spent with someone like Matthew.  I suppose, too, that if you are a Matthew, you thrill to his every move.  Bravo to Johnson for taking this role and creating it in such a manner that we have those options.


Best friends...
...or unrequited lovers?  Or both?

Higgins' play is an uneasy hybrid of dark comedy and social consciousness play.  There is enough here to be entertained, think a little, laugh a little, and to go home feeling smug (in that way Nancy Grace and her minions are smug) that we are a little better than the people we just spent 100 minutes with, and with little thought to the "other side of the story."  Who cares about the predator, as long as the prey is OK, right?  But who is the predator and who is the prey is the essential plot point here.  So much time is devoted to setting up and executing Matthew's discovery and subsequent plan, that the aftermath and impact on each character is only very briefly touched upon.  And in turn, the final twist that I alluded to, seems immediately like some questions have finally been answered for us.

Jay Armstrong Johnson
I know that it was my erroneous conclusion that had me disappointed about the play.  Now I am more disappointed (ashamed, too) in myself for making a relatively quick snap to judgment.  And even more disappointed in the playwright for not giving us more.  More substance to each character, more time to digest key plot points, and definitely more time to realize that there is never really any evidence to suggest any wrong doing on the part of anyone other than the catalyst for the central issue of the play.  I know we live in an age where we want our plays shorter than our films, with no intermission and no pause to think.  But this is one play that might have benefited from an act break and maybe another 15, 20 minutes of character development and plot details.  Sure, a show should leave you wanting more, but not this much more.

Director Trip Cullman has directed the play with that 100 minutes in and out mentality clearly in mind.  Each scene goes by a blinding rate, punctuated by a "dun dun duh" line and the de rigour electronic music that is supposed to make it feel very current and urgent.  Cullman has also instructed his actors, apparently, never to talk over each other, but also never to really pause.  In other words, we get the dialogue at a lightning speed, with barely time to think about what is being said.  The most silent moments - the strip teases by Johnson that bookend the play, and the key scene between Johnson and Behlmann - are so sexually charged that the lack of dialogue to follow is replaced by trying to soak it all in visually before the lights blackout and the electronica inevitably starts.  At first, you are shocked and trying to figure out what is the true relationship between two teenage boys watching each other over the Internet; in the middle you are trying feverishly pick up any details you can in that will he/won't he kind of way; and that final strip has you thinking, "jeez, nothing has really changed."  Until that very last detail shows up at minute 99, and Matthew makes a small, but life-changing alteration to his stripping.

I make no secret of it that I find having to work a little to really "get" a play pleases and entertains me, and a lot of the above hit me because I  have spent much time discussing it, and after, pondering it alone.  So it probably sounds funny to hear me say that I wish there had been more.  The catalyst I referred to before is Matthew, whose need to be admired and adored goes excruciatingly bad when he finds out the Scout Master's secret.  Lives are potentially destroyed, friendships potentially irrevocably broken, and a family is potentially fractured.  That is the reality.  How it appears is another thing altogether.

(Production photos by Joan Marcus)


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Jeff
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