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Mysterious Skin

Adapted from Scott Heim's coming-of-age novel by Prince Gomolvilas, the stage version of "Mysterious Skin" retains its powerful, fresh and ambivalent take on childhood sexual molestation -- though the text's current two acts could be streamlined, and Arturo Catricala's New Conservatory premiere production needs honing.

With:
Brian - Taylor Valentine Neil - Joseph Parks Avalyn - Rebecca Fisher Ren, Christopher, Eric - Rich Dymer Wendy, Margaret, Deborah - Megan Towle Voice of Boy - Andy Goldin Rothschild

Adapted from Scott Heim’s coming-of-age novel by Prince Gomolvilas, the stage version of “Mysterious Skin” retains its powerful, fresh and ambivalent take on childhood sexual molestation — though the text’s current two acts could be streamlined, and Arturo Catricala’s New Conservatory premiere production needs honing. Future productions, sure to follow on the gay theater circuit, should take advantage of that room for improvement.

As its profile in public discourse has reached a rather hysterical pitch in the past decade, so childhood sexual abuse has become too often a coarse, knee-jerk dramatic device — one that provides a convenient explanation for any and all character woes. Part of “Skin’s” potency derives from approaching the subject indirectly for some time. The rest comes from the very different perspectives of two protags, one of which will disturb viewers willing to see this theme treated only in “victim” terms.

Opening scene has awkward Kansas teen Brian (Taylor Valentine) meeting for the first time with Avalyn (Rebecca Fisher), a thirtysomething he’s tracked down after seeing her interviewed on TV. What they have in common is the belief that they were abducted by space aliens as children. They base this assumption on “blackout” periods and signs of physical tampering not accounted for since.

While they “research” this paranoid topic, ex-Kansan Neil (Joseph Parks) belies his age as Brian’s peer by living a far more worldly life in 1991 Manhattan. To the amused concern of self-described “fag hag” pal Wendy (a shrill Megan Towle), he’s drifted into hustling to pay the rent.

These two long tete-a-tetes are intercut with brief flashbacks that hint at a shared past for the young men. But the real “mystery” of Brian’s early traumas unfolds only after intermission, when he tracks down Neil while the latter is home for Christmas. Turns out they were once Little League teammates, and their mutual history holds the key to their variously dysfunctional adult lives.

First in a rich, long monologue (beautifully delivered by Parks), then in somewhat overlong conversation, Neil describes formative sexual experiences with their 40-ish coach. Even now, he views them as a gift. For Brian, who’d unwillingly participated only twice, it was a horrifying ordeal.

For many, story’s most unsettling element will be Neil’s take on child-adult sex as a largely positive experience. But the play hardly champions this view, instead presenting it simply as one discomfiting, perhaps equally unhealthy reaction among many possible ones.

Character’s descriptions of those encounters goes rather further than necessary, since point is effectively made about halfway through second act. After a while, too much detail begins to seem sensationalistic. Overall impact would only be heightened if text were trimmed by 15 minutes or so and intermission eliminated.

NCTC’s tiny space doesn’t allow much visual invention, but the design elements here (a starry-night sky and two movable platforms) are deficient nonetheless. Director Catricala allows too much yelling in too many scenes; perfs could use more moderation at times, with Towle particularly overscaled in several distaff parts.

Decision to use tabloid-TV-style “thunderclaps” as a recurrent sound effect might or might not be intended satirically. In any case, it just comes off tacky.

Mysterious Skin

New Conservatory Theater Center - San Francisco; 65 seats; $28 top

Production: A New Conservatory Theater Center presentation, in association with Theater Communications Group, National Endowment for the Arts and Vivendi Universal, of a play in two acts by Prince Gomolvilas, based on the novel by Scott Heim. Directed by Arturo Catricala.

Creative: Set, Cat Stevans; costumes, Nancy Mancias; lighting, Patrick Hajduk; production stage manager, Leslie Grisdale. Artistic director, Ed Decker. Opened May 3, 2003. Reviewed May 7. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

Cast: Brian - Taylor Valentine Neil - Joseph Parks Avalyn - Rebecca Fisher Ren, Christopher, Eric - Rich Dymer Wendy, Margaret, Deborah - Megan Towle Voice of Boy - Andy Goldin Rothschild

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