In “Boy Gets Girl,” Rebecca Gilman offers up a tale of Gotham singledom you won’t be seeing any time soon on “Sex and the City.” A disturbing chiller about a woman whose life of accomplishment is quickly destroyed by a disturbed admirer, the play works powerfully at its most basic level, as a suspenseful tale about the unraveling of a strong woman’s sense of security in the urban jungle.
It certainly will touch a tender nerve in everybody who’s ever squirmed through a creepy blind date (raise your hands!), and it boasts a superior performance from Mary Beth Fisher as the journalist who finds herself the victim of a stalker. But it suffers from some of the same flaws as Gilman’s last (and first) play to be seen in New York, the race-relations drama “Spinning Into Butter.” Both are essentially fleshed-out position papers meant to raise our consciousness rather than dramas driven by the more subtle engines of character and the complexity of experience. The op-ed feeling that kept poking through the dramatic texture of “Spinning” comes into play here, too.
The tidily constructed first act displays Gilman’s sharp ear for contemporary speech patterns, particularly in the subtly funny first scene, in which Fisher’s Theresa Bedell and her blind date Tony (Ian Lithgow) share a couple of beers and not much else, aside from apparently mutual good intentions. They joke awkwardly, trying to find a comfortable rhythm, and eventually approximate one. But underneath the amiability is something else that’s expertly communicated by Fisher’s dry inflections and tense pauses: the mild discordance that can erupt almost instantly between a pair of hopelessly mismatched people. She makes casual reference to Edith Wharton and confesses a passion for the Yankees; he’s never heard of Wharton and doesn’t much care for sports, either. Enough said.
A second date makes clear that the earnest but overeager Tony is all wrong for the more sophisticated Theresa (“Are you, like, a feminist?” he asks her dubiously when she avers that most women don’t have time to cook much anymore). She works up the courage to tell him she doesn’t think they should pursue a relationship, couching her rejection in the kindest way possible. “I’m just not relationship material,” she says, as the audience winces in sympathy.
But Tony isn’t the milquetoast he at first appeared to be, and soon he’s sending Theresa piles of flowers and showing up at her workplace, a New Yorker-ish magazine where she’s a busy reporter, asking her to reconsider. The rejections get firmer, but so does Tony’s resolve. He plagues Theresa with increasingly disturbed phone messages, and seems to know when she’s home and when she’s not. When the messages turn violent, Theresa calls the police. The first act closes with a stolid female police officer informing Theresa that a restraining order can be put in place, but also warning her that things could get a lot uglier.
With Theresa reduced to hysteria, sleeping with a hammer by her side and yanking the phone out of the wall in her small but handsome apartment (Michael Philippi’s several sets, gliding by on a turntable, are finely observed), we might expect the play to continue as a contemporary equivalent of old-style theatrical thrillers like “Wait Until Dark.” But Gilman has more ambitious goals, and the tense momentum of the first act gradually dissipates throughout the second, as the playwright moves away from the simple but effective dynamics of her contempo horror story to spoon-feed us its wider ramifications and examine the possible roots of Tony’s pathology in American culture.
In short, it’s time to have our Thoughts Provoked, and this Gilman proceeds dutifully to do in scenes that have a suggestive point to make about male-female relations (and all but leave us looking for footnotes for further reading). Theresa’s interviews with Les Kennkat, a Russ Meyer type played with crowd-pleasing scurrility by Howard Witt, point up, among other things, the manner in which female sexuality and violence often are linked in both high- and low-end films.
Later, Theresa’s well-meaning colleague Mercer (David Adkins) begins examining his own conscience and discovering he’s been guilty of behavior that’s on the same “continuum” as Tony’s — a semi-obsessive interest in an ex. “Normal male heterosexual behavior is somewhat psychotic,” he concludes, and he finds its roots in cultural patterns imprinted through old-fashioned screen romances in which besotted boy harasses disinterested girl until she confesses that, yes, she does really love the scamp better than her stiff-necked boyfriend from the first reel. “This guy Tony is probably wondering, ‘Why don’t I get the girl?’ ” he concludes.
Gilman’s points about male-female miscommunication will have audiences nodding in sympathy, even if they’re oversimplified (“When a woman talks, a man just sees her mouth moving,” cracks Theresa to Les, and later hectors him, “I could say about you, ‘He’s a funny guy, except when it comes to women.’ … And I have said that about other men, … but I’m not saying that anymore. Because you’re not a funny guy, and you’re not a good guy, if you can’t deal with half the population of the world”).
But these earnest rap sessions about the dangers of culturally imposed roles for both men and women are a bit self-conscious, and the suggestion that they are somehow at the root of Tony’s maniacal behavior is simplistic and perhaps a bit specious. Gilman’s theses feel layered onto the play’s events rather than proven by them in any real sense (Tony doesn’t appear in the second act at all; he becomes an unseen, standard-issue psycho).
Still, the play retains our attention, thanks to its inherent suspense and the fine work of the cast under director Michael Maggio. All the performers appeared in the play’s premiere last year at the Goodman Theater, also directed by Maggio, and they have a smooth and confident rapport. Matt DeCaro makes a particularly fine impression as Theresa’s sympathetic boss, and Lithgow (son of John) is properly goofy/subtly psycho as the malefactor.
But the play would lose all of its steam without a strong performance in the role of Theresa, and Fisher provides a scrupulously smart, simple and superb one. She brings us right into the heart of this bright, self-confident woman, and makes us feel her anguish as proud independence turns to frightened isolation. We see just how terrifying it is to feel one’s very life and identity evaporating while the world outside the embattled self retains its familiar, indifferent shape.