There’s something coy about “Boy,” the hardworking but hollow new play by Julia Jordan at Primary Stages. The title, for example, refers to a central character that remains ostentatiously unnamed. And Jordan parcels out details about the grim events at the heart of the play in an attenuated manner, the better to maximize an air of gloomy portentousness. But the play’s willfully oblique aspects can’t disguise its essential emptiness. Despite all the earnest acting in Joe Calarco’s production, “Boy” feels like a literary exercise.
Like Bryony Lavery’s “Frozen,” “Boy” seeks to borrow an aura of significance from the grim nature of its subject matter. It, too, takes a grisly, tabloid-friendly event — in this case a suicide pact among teenage boys — and dresses it up with fancy writing and literary imagery. Oddly enough, “Boy,” like “Frozen,” also boasts a psychiatrist of dubious mental stability, and equally dubious methodology, among its small cast of characters. Do we have a trend?
The shrink here is Terry (Robert Hogan), who is treating a troubled teen, the unnamed kid who has come to this unnamed Midwestern city from small-town Iowa, fleeing a tragedy that has scarred both body and mind.
After pages of laborious dialogue advertising the character’s profound anomie as well as his deep sensitivity, duly delivered with twitchy mannerism by T.R. Knight, it emerges that this youngster and four friends took to a field one night with their dads’ shotguns. Two shot themselves; the remaining three, seeking a less violent end, hopped into a car in a sealed garage and turned on the ignition. And then there was one!
These bleak events have become fodder for the survivor’s literary efforts; when not experimenting with methods of self-destruction, he apparently passes his time penning artful short stories that are marred only by their abrupt, cheery endings. Each concludes like so: “And they all got really, really high and lived happily ever after. The end.”
His talents earn him the notice of his English lit teacher at the community college, Maureen (Caitlin O’Connell), who happens to be the professionally frustrated wife of the shrink (who, by the way, is clinically depressed himself). They, in turn, happen to be the parents of Mick (Kelly AuCoin), a failed actor who has returned to town looking to hook up with an ex-girlfriend. Mick is revealed to be the boy’s anonymous email pal, who also has been encouraging his literary ambitions.
As that knot of plot suggests, the interrelationships among the play’s characters are far too neat, enhancing the sense of artifice that likewise seeps through too much of Jordan’s dialogue. Calarco’s somber production, with an economical set design by Michael Fagin and sensitive lighting by Chris Lee, can hardly be expected to disguise the overwhelming impression that it’s not fate but literary contrivance that has drawn these folks together.
There is a vague suggestion that the boy may be some sort of mystical agent drawn to heal the family’s wounds, a sort of benevolent incubus. Mick’s ex Sarah (Miriam Shor), a med student, has a weird fixation on a creepy tumor called a homonculus teratoma, which she sees as representing the idea “that there are all these other versions of people inside them. These other possibilities.”
This idea of unfulfilled potentiality is tossed around in various ways; there is likewise much talk about narrative artistry, the importance of finding the proper ending for every story. Mick, Maureen and the boy all agree George Eliot got it way wrong with that flood at the end of “The Mill on the Floss,” leaving one to seriously wonder about their potential as writers, or readers.
Jordan, who has had three other works produced in New York over the past season, doubtless has more potential than this disappointing entry would suggest.