Beware the easy early laughs of “The Boys Room,” a new play by Joel Drake Johnson at Victory Gardens Theater. Chicagoans who have experienced some of Johnson’s earlier work – particularly his excellent and still underproduced “Four Places” — know that he is drawn to awfully dark aspects of humanity. When his newest work finally fully goes to that dark place and confronts the blatant cowardice of his central character, it feels alive. But the potential for poignant power has been sedated by the earlier silliness.
The high-concept quality of Johnson’s premise is that Ron (Joe Dempsey), a middle-aged dentist with a wife and 16-year-old daughter, decides to move back in with his mother, Susan (Mary Ann Thebus). And he’s not the first of Susan’s two boys to do so; Ron will need to share his boyhood room with his brother, Tim (Steve Key).
They’re both in full escape mode from unsatisfying lives, and Ron even admits to running away from a most basic responsibility and contemplating suicide. But for much of the first half of this 90-minute play, Johnson, and director Sandy Shinner allow themselves to revel in the comic possibilities of grown men reverting to childishness, like fighting over who gets which bed.
When Ron’s daughter, Roann (Allison Torem), comes to try and bring him back home, the situation finally begins to feel real, its consequences human and painful. And by the end, Johnson craftily exposes a history that makes surprising sense, transforming the premise from a joke into a psychological trauma.
Up-and-comer Torem and stage veteran Thebus deserve great credit for keeping the play grounded enough in convincing feelings to make this ending affecting – they both give outstanding performances. Still, Johnson and Shinner and even Dempsey, who by nature seems a comic actor, simply go too far in making Ron pathetic and making us laugh about it, to turn the play emotionally on its head.
The effect is disorienting and not to be dismissed, but when “The Boys Room” needs to operate at full emotional force, it just can’t get there.