Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Good Boys and True

Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****

Brandon Hardy is at the top of the high school food chain in Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's Good Boys and True, currently playing off-Broadway at the Second Stage Theatre.

Hardy is the captain of the football team at St. Joseph's, his Catholic boys school outside of Washington, D.C., and he's been admitted early decision to Dartmouth. As portrayed by Brian J. Smith, he's a polite, personable, confident overachiever who makes his parents very proud. Even his last name evokes an all-American wholesomeness.

But the perfectly formed life that Brandon has created for himself is in danger of falling apart. His coach, Russell Shea, played by Lee Tergesen, has come into possession of a videotape in which a boy who looks suspiciously like Brandon is seen having rough sex with a girl. Brandon's father is a doctor off on some lifesaving medical mission to Central America, so Shea calls his mother, Elizabeth, played by J. Smith-Cameron, to the school and confronts her with the tape.

Tergesen plays the coach as someone whose primary concern is to protect the school's reputation. He seems perfectly willing to sweep the whole incident under the rug, as long as it's kept quiet. And if it can't be kept quiet, well Brandon will be offered up as a sacrificial lamb.

It turns out that Brandon is hiding something - from his coach, his teammates, his family, and most importantly, from himself. He's had a secret relationship with a classmate, Justin, played with great sensitivity by Christopher Abbott, and he's desperate to ward off even the slightest hint that he's gay.

In some ways, Good Boys and True left me feeling a bit unsatisfied. Some plot points are only vaguely hinted at, the story seems a little rushed at 90 minutes and it ends rather abruptly. Despite those shortcomings, this is a play that had me thinking about how we define masculinity, how teenage boys treat teenage girls, about how athletes get treated, and about what a confining, threatening place high school can be for a gay teenager.

Smith vividly portrays a 1980s teenager struggling with his sexual orientation. I know that coming-out stories aren't exactly a novel concept in 2008, but this is the first one I've seen on stage and there were a couple of scenes in particular that were heart-wrenching for me to watch.

Brandon is living with a fear that I can't even contemplate. He knows the taunts that get piled on gay boys, including Justin. He believes that as a gay man, his future won't be as bright. It's to the point where the fear warps his judgment. To be what his teammates would consider a "real man," he hurts everyone around him. He may even have ruined the bright future that he's expended so much energy working toward. It's also telling that the girl on the videotape, played by Betty Gilpin, isn't from the same wealthy, private-school world. In one sad scene, Gilpin's Cheryl tells Elizabeth how she's been horribly scarred by the incident.

As Derek McLane's trophy-filled set design drives home, he lives in a very jock-oriented culture. The locker room, the gym, the football field are places where being gay is light years away from being accepted. In fact, for Brandon, it's preferable to practically be considered a rapist. He doesn't even really understand why the incident on the videotape is such a big deal. He's shocked that when the scandal becomes public knowledge, the school won't protect him.

As the story unfolded, I expected Smith-Cameron to be angrier as she tries to draw the truth out of her son. But I realized that she's an affluent, educated woman, a doctor like her husband. Even Tom Broecker's costume design signals tasteful, expensive, restrained. I realized that this is not a family where people get too emotional or spend a lot of time discussing their feelings.

Naturally, Smith-Cameron cannot believe that the boy on the videotape is her son. Her inclination is to protect Brandon. But she also remembers a pretty disgusting testosterone-filled incident from her own youth, involving Brandon's father, and she worries that history is repeating itself. Elizabeth's sister Maddy, played by Kellie Overbey, bluntly reminds her that this "boys will be boys" attitude has been going on for a long time.

I was impressed at the way, under Scott Ellis' direction, Good Boys and True doesn't squander its emotional capital by overdoing it. The two loudest, angriest, most emotional scenes occur when Brandon denies that he's gay. During the first one, I got choked up as he hurls vile, homophobic insults at Justin. He's going to have a better life, he taunts Justin, he'll make more money, be more successful, be happier, because he's not going to be gay. It's as if he could will himself to be straight.

At first, I felt horrible for Justin. But Justin is actually in a much better place than Brandon. He's hurt by the taunts of his classmates, but like most gay teens - and adults - he hasn't let those taunts destroy him. He's further along in accepting the fact of this sexual orientation. Hopefully, he'll find a partner and he'll be fine. As for Brandon, I remember thinking, he'll either come to terms with being gay or in 30 years, he'll end up like Larry Craig in an airport men's room.

In its earlier incarnation, at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, the ending of Good Boys and True apparently was different, more clear cut. The play was also about 30 minutes longer. But I think a more vague ending works better. Elizabeth brings up Justin in a way that strongly hints she knows about their relationship, but when Brandon heatedly denies it, she drops the matter. Brandon doesn't seem at all ready to come out, to his mother or anyone else. Elizabeth is left frustrated and bewildered. She thought she knew everything about her son. She blames herself for his involvement with this scandal and she's disgusted by his nonchalant attitude toward the matter.

In the end, what got to me is that Brandon didn't have anyplace to turn for help when he feared his relationship with Justin would become public knowledge. He couldn't go to his coach. His mother gave an indication that she'd be supportive, but I wasn't completely sure. I also wasn't sure about how his father would react to having a gay son. I hope his parents would still love him and still be proud of him. Whatever you have to go through in life, whatever challenges you face, your family's love should never be in doubt.

When I was growing up, I had parents, a community to tell me what it meant to be Jewish. Brandon is going through something much tougher, and he's going through it all alone. I just wish he'd had someone to talk to, someone who could have eased his fears about what it means to be gay. I wish someone could have told him that it's simply a matter of who he loves, a part of who he is like his hair color or eye color, that it doesn't change any of the other things about him. He's still a great athlete, a good student, a caring son, a model citizen, the same wholesome, clean-cut all-American kid that he's always been.

I wish someone had reassured him that he would survive the hateful name-calling, the taunts and the doubt, that he didn't have to live his life as a lie, in a sham marriage, closeted and miserable. I wish someone had told him that he could have his dignity as an open, confident gay man, that he could meet his true love, find a successful career, have a wonderful life filled with great adventures and close, supportive friends. I wish someone had told him that he was a good boy and true, and that he would grow up to become an equally good man.

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