Wednesday, March 01, 2017

All the Fine Boys

From public/political discussions and debates, you might think that sexual boundaries between adults and minors--and sexuality itself--are clear, defined, and unambiguous. They're not, as vividly depicted in Erica Schmidt excellent and disturbing (and surprisingly funny) new play, All the Fine Boys.

Wolff, Fuhrman
Photo: Monique Carboni
Emily and Jenny are 14-year-olds in South Carolina in the 1980s. Emily is a relative newcomer; Jenny grew up here. They watch horror films together. Their conversation focuses on middle-school gossip, along with life, adulthood, and sex, about which they know little but would like to know more. Emily's home gets covered in toilet paper every weekend; the perpetrators and their reasons are unknown. She feels overwhelmed by her new boobs. She is smart. Jenny seems a bit lost. She lies for no reason. She says, "You know sometimes I lie down in my driveway and I let the fire ants bite my arm." (Emily changes the subject pretty quickly.)

[serious spoilers]

All the Fine Boys follows the girls for a few months, during which each explores her sexuality in her own way.

Emily is interested in a high schooler named Adam, who is poetic, sensitive, and vulnerable. He is sweetly pompous and full of deep ideas; he is also genuinely smart and interesting. He teaches her to go after what she wants instead of waiting for life to happen to her. Emily and Adam spend more and more time together, with Emily falling deeper and deeper in love. Adam cares for Emily, and they do kiss, but he knows that he is going off to college and that sleeping with her would be wrong. Emily has been a good student, and she keeps going after what she wants. Eventually Adam says that he'd ruin her. She replies, "I can’t be ruined. Not by love. Not in the suburbs."

Emily and Adam's unconsummated romance is sweet, and they learn and grow together. Emily may regret not having slept with Adam when she gets older, but there is no doubt that Adam is right to say no, which he does with honor, gentleness, and affection.

Breslin, Tippett
Photo: Monique Carboni

Jenny chases after Joseph, a 28-year-old she met at a church party. He is a religious man who is upset when Jenny curses, but who has nevertheless invited a 14-year-old to his home. Joseph makes an attempt to warn Jenny away, pointing out that he is a stranger. She says, "you’re too good lookin’ to be bad"--a sentence that gestures toward the poor women killed by Ted Bundy, who also came across as "too good lookin' to be bad." Joseph eventually makes the pass that Jenny clearly wants him to make, and they have sex. Jenny is not impressed: "I thought it was going to- I thought- well, it’s just Angela Martin said that you see things like colors or- and I didn’t see anything." Joseph dismisses her comment with, "You have to practise [sic] - you’re a girl - you have to teach yourself, how to see the colors."

Jenny is not only just 14; she's a young 14. She wants desperately to be seen and to have something happen in her life. She can be bought off with Pringles and Twizzlers. Even after she finds out that Joseph is married, she succumbs to his promises of a vacation and says that she won't tell anyone what happened between them. 

But then she finds out that the vacation will never happen, and in her anger and hurt she once again threatens to tell his wife. Her behavior is painfully young and stupid, and he doesn't respond well, saying that she is at fault. After all, she got into the car with him, she acted seductively, and she took gifts from him. (What's horrible is that Joseph is not totally wrong; Jenny did do all she could to seduce him. But he should never, never, never have gotten himself into the situation in the first place. He was the adult.)

Jenny keeps pushing him, even ripping pages out of his bible. It becomes clear to the audience way before it becomes clear to Jenny that she is not going to survive this experience. She has met her Ted Bundy.

But Schmidt isn't interested in keeping things that simple. The truth is that Joseph isn't Ted Bundy. He would never pick up a woman with the express intention of killing her. He's a schmuck whose life hasn't turned out remotely as he expected/hoped: "Yeah. You don’t know. Being an adult - sucks. When you’re - fifteen?- it’s like the future is endless and- like, made just for you and then you grow up and it’s every day the same thing, the same small-ass things and everything you thought you knew and understood - it’s like it just evaporates - "

He's not the nice guy he believes himself to be. In fact, he's pretty creepy, and there are signs throughout that he could be dangerous. But he's also not a serial killer. And Jenny isn't totally blameless. In her stupidity, need, and bad luck, she sets everything in motion. (I know this sounds like blaming the victim, and I don't mean it to. Morally and legally, Joseph is 100% at fault. But pragmatically, Jenny had a role in what happened.)

[end of spoilers]

It's a cliche to call a play thought-provoking, but I've been thinking about All the Fine Boys frequently since I saw it; it has provoked a lot of thoughts. In fact, this review only scratches the surface, and if I had written it on another day, it might have been a completely different review. But the following points would remain the same.

The performances are quite good, but the casting is perhaps a little off. It is disconcerting that while Emily (Isabelle Fuhrman) complains about having boobs, it is Jenny (Abigail Breslin) who actually has them. It also takes a while to accept the two women as 14-year-olds. However, their performances are ultimately everything they need to be. Casting Joe Tippett as Joseph is more problematical because he comes across as 35 rather than 28, and this is a play where age matters. On the other hand, Alex Wolff is perfectly cast as Adam, thin and intense.

Amy Rubin's scenery perfectly depicts three separate dreary locations, and the costumes (Tom Broecker) and lighting (Jeff Croiter) are equally appropriate. Most importantly, Schmidt's direction of her play is smooth, well-paced, and unobtrusive. Authors aren't always their own best directors, but Schmidt-the-director respects and gets Schmidt-the-writer.

I know I will continue to have thoughts provoked by the this play weeks from now. And that is good theatre!

Wendy Caster
(6th row; press ticket)

No comments: