A sensitive subject — the difficulties gays and lesbians face in negotiating the challenges of child-rearing — gets a swift kick in the groin from “Boys and Girls,” a new play by Tom Donaghy that has its share of flaws, certainly, but probably doesn’t deserve the savaging it gets at the hands of director Gerald Gutierrez in its world premiere production at Playwrights Horizons. The staging marks another sad misfire in the checkered career of Gutierrez, who did exquisite work on the celebrated Broadway revivals of “The Heiress” and “A Delicate Balance” — and has the Tonys to prove it — but has more recently displayed a coarser touch.
The production’s aggressive comic tone is set in the opening moments, when ex-boyfriends Reed (Robert Sella) and Jason (Malcolm Gets) exchange brittle bursts of verbal gunfire over cocktails during a tense get-together. The elliptical dialogue and caffeinated rhythms are reminiscent of the plays of Donaghy mentor David Mamet, but Jason’s response to one of Reed’s inadvertent references to his drinking problem — “I heard it without subtext,” he shrugs — is all too telling.
Gutierrez and his actors — Sella being the most egregious offender — seem so desperate to accentuate the comic acid in Donaghy’s dialogue that they ignore its potentially complicated emotional underpinnings; the staccato pacing turns the characters into purveyors of shtick and robs Donaghy’s articulately inarticulate language of any significance it might accumulate if it were treated more spaciously. Instead of layered human beings we get standard-issue flippant gay characters lashing away at each other like windup toys on speed.
The play depicts Reed’s relationship with his old friend, Bev (Nadia Dajani), and her new girlfriend, Shelley (Carrie Preston), who are raising a boy and have decided to invite Reed to join their upscale menage to provide the male presence the youngster seems to be instinctively desiring. Reed is wary of this emotionally complicated situation — “a minefield” as he calls it — and isn’t quite sure he’s interested in being a surrogate daddy. (Donaghy is, however, somewhat slippery in defining his characters: At one moment Reed declines Bev’s offer by asserting he’s happy to be kid-free — and minutes later says he always wanted to have a kid with Jason. Huh?) Reed goes on to take up a modicum of responsibility, but his relationship with this atypical “family” is compromised by his on-again/off-again relationship with the on-again/off-again drunk Jason, of whom Shelley strenuously and shrilly disapproves.
The playwright has taken aim at a potent situation and a timely subject, and intermittently the play reveals a clear-eyed insight into the ambivalence young gays and lesbians may feel in taking on the kind of responsibilities that prior generations of gay men and women have been unable — or unwilling — to pursue. Donaghy also should be credited for taking a hard look at some of the darker strands in the web of motivations that can drive gay men and women to establish families. Reed speaks of wanting to raise a child “better than we were” in order to have a place to put “our extra love” — rather solipsistic reasoning.
But Donaghy seems so intent on avoiding a rose-colored, politically correct approach to his subject that he tugs too far in the other direction: He so insistently accentuates the characters’ self-indulgence and emotional immaturity that the play loses any sense of truth. Instead of a politically correct cartoon in which gay child-rearing is given a big gold star of approval, we get a smugly politically incorrect cartoon of contemporary gay culture.
The characters become caricatures wearing their pronounced psychological flaws like the latest designer duds; they’re updated versions of the damaged gay goods found at the center of plays of the era of “The Boys in the Band.” Donaghy has merely exchanged a benign formula for a more fashionably cynical one. (More plays like this and Donaghy could well become the gay Neil LaBute. Lovely!)
Sadly, Gutierrez’s production gleefully accentuates the play’s reckless disregard for its characters’ humanity. Sella’s performance is distinctly grating, particularly during a second-act scene at the beach in which he and Shelley resort to physical violence when the verbal kind proves too unsatisfying. It doesn’t help that most of Reed’s dialogue tends to be whining of one kind or another: Either the sunscreen isn’t working or, “I was the first one of everyone to want a home and someone and then everyone got that and now I’m the last,” as he complains to Jason during one of their many scenes of rapprochement.
Preston’s Shelley is perhaps even more distasteful: She’s an emotionally stunted perfectionist who sees a child as the latest de rigueur accoutrement of her high-toned lifestyle. (A phone conversation with her chilly and demanding mother is a facile and unconvincing way of explaining away her personality problems.) Gets and Dajani have far easier tasks in presenting their less shrilly drawn characters, and do more creditable work.
The boy at the heart of this sour two-hour tug of war remains offstage throughout the play — which may or may not be meant as a comment on his insignificance in the emotional lives of his “parents.” In any case, it’s a pity: However difficult this 4-year-old might have been, he couldn’t be more unpleasant company than his quartet of adult caretakers. You can say this, at least, for “Boys and Girls” — it’s the rare play to leave you pining for the presence of a child actor.