How sad to think the ugly, cynical, aggressive 1980s in retrospect can seem almost innocent. How else to explain the fact that, back in 1988, audiences could be needled by “Boys’ Life,” Howard Korder’s now-trite dissection of the misanthropic male animal? Men behaving badly and unrepentantly toward women and each other have been so thoroughly exposed in sitcoms, movies and the collected works of Neil LaBute that it’s hard to imagine this actor-y exercise ever having had much sting. It’s even harder to imagine what prompted Second Stage to consider honoring it with a 20th anniversary revival.
Directed with customary vigor by Michael Greif, sharply designed by Mark Wendland on a set of mobile trailer interiors, and played by the male leads with the requisite four Cs — cravenness, cruelty, coolness and cluelessness — the production is as slick as it needs to be. But the play doesn’t stand up. Its illustration of protracted adolescence, sexual predatoriness, selfishness, emotional insecurity and competitiveness no longer has anything fresh to teach us. And its caustic, quippish dialogue is more often glib than funny.
The boys of the title are three twentysomething buddies resisting the pull toward adulthood and responsibility, still hoping idly that maturity will be handed to them with no investment required on their part. Rhys Coiro and Peter Scanavino make the more incisive impressions of the trio, sinking their teeth into the play’s juiciest parts.
Coiro is smart-mouthed mephistophelean ringleader Jack, coldly detached from his reluctant role as husband and father, and keen to continue the unending quest for sexual satisfaction, whether it’s vicariously through his pals or in his own indiscretions. Scanavino is eager-to-please stoner Don, who falls in love and seems to want to become an emotional adult, even if he has trouble fully convincing himself. As Phil, the group nebbish and butt of Jack’s jokes, Jason Biggs mostly tags along, underplaying affably until he acquires some backbone in a well-played final scene that shows how thin the friendship has stretched.
As guy-centric as the play is, the women’s roles are not without definition, united in their ability to see through the men’s lies and self-delusion.
Karen (Michelle Federer) is a touching study in conflicted impulses, bristling at Phil’s failure to follow up after sleeping with her yet too lacking in self-esteem to cold-shoulder him; alluring jogger Maggie (Stephanie March) is intrigued but perhaps too wily to fall for Jack’s pickup routine; Don’s girlfriend Lisa (Betty Gilpin) has her bullshit detector cranked high but remains open to a relationship; the nameless one-night stand (Laura-Leigh) that almost wrecks that relationship is an intense kewpie doll who manipulates Don with laughable ease; and Jack’s wife, Carla (Paloma Guzman), conveys her insightfulness in a single, drunken observation to him: “You’re not the worst man in the world. But you’d like to be…”
Greif threads the fragmented scenes together with bursts of period tunes (Talking Heads, INXS, etc.), but all the energy of the production can’t disguise the fact the play’s edge has been dulled and its principal characters are uninvolving. Scanavino brings a certain squinty soulfulness to Don’s doubts, confusion and tested loyalties that makes his character progressively more engaging, particularly in scenes with the flinty Gilpin. But ultimately there’s something missing from Coiro’s Jack, a narcissistic creep whose hollowness should have a more melancholy resonance.
The actor is best known as psycho-auteur Billy Walsh on HBO’s “Entourage.” That show shares with Korder’s play a fascination with the skirt-chasing, hard-partying, college-hangover mentality, but manages to incorporate it into roguishly likable characters and a more targeted satire of a specific milieu. For that matter, even before “Boys’ Life” came along there were sharper investigations of the eternal lad at home, work and play, like David Rabe’s “Hurlyburly” or David Mamet’s “Sexual Perversity in Chicago.”
There’s no doubt Mamet’s bullet-like dialogue was an influence on Korder and perhaps in its original Off Broadway production, directed by longtime Mamet associate William H. Macy, “Boys’ Life” found both its ideal rhythm and some truth in its mordant observations. Twenty years later, these guys and their post-adolescent limbo just seem tediously familiar.