Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s drama about a prep school sex scandal in the late 1980s, “Good Boys and True,” is not based on any particular real-life story but could have drawn inspiration from any number of headline stories. A thoughtful take on American class privilege, the play gets off to an involving, straightforward and wholly convincing start, only to feel progressively more manufactured as it goes on. Steppenwolf premiere precedes an April debut at Off Broadway’s Second Stage.
Brandon Hardy (Stephen Louis Grush) is the all-American boy of privilege: son of two doctors, a popular student at an elite D.C. boys’ school, captain of the football team, etc. But this is a play all about the crumbling of the facade. In the opening scene, St. Joseph’s football coach Russell Shea (John Procaccino) informs Brandon’s mother Elizabeth (Martha Lavey) of the existence of a sexually explicit videotape. While the boy in the tape has carefully shielded his face from the camera, it sure does resemble Brandon, and it unmistakably represents an act of raw exploitation of the girl, oblivious to the taping. In other words, it’s not the act of a good boy.
Much of the first act explores whether Brandon did it, and these scenes are the play’s most involving. Even when Elizabeth confronts Brandon and he denies it, it’s apparent she’s almost choosing to restrain her doubt, largely because she wishes to avoid an unpleasant reassessment of her own son’s values — and therefore of hers and her husband’s as well.
Logic itself seems to dictate it couldn’t possibly be Brandon. He’s always been a sensitive, likable, caring kid, and Grush really does emanate enough cherubic innocence and seemingly unassuming charm to make Elizabeth’s denials feel understandable, particularly in Lavey’s emotionally nuanced portrayal.
We also discover early on that Brandon does indeed have a secret — he’s been having a love affair with his friend Justin (Tim Rock) since their freshman year at St. Joe’s. But even Justin doesn’t really accept Brandon’s denials regarding the video. Eventually, by the force of the play’s momentum, the truth is revealed in stages. Once the local media gets wind of the story and the girl comes forward, there’s no hiding it any more.
For the early part of the work, Aguirre-Sacasa (“Based on a Totally True Story”) depicts his upper-crust and not always sympathetic figures with an admirable sensitivity. And for much of the duration, he’s helped by director Pam MacKinnon’s focus on cool emotional restraint instead of stereotypical stuffiness.
But this one-note detachment becomes stifling, and also false, as the play moves along to explore motivating factors, reactions and consequences. In fact, an undeniable falseness permeates this show after a while. Aguirre-Sacasa starts throwing in dramatic twists and ends up sacrificing the believability of his characters and the pursuit of deeper, more fundamentally mysterious truths about class in America.
“Good Boys and True” entertains, but more and more superficially as it goes on, becoming too literal, explaining itself too forthrightly and focusing too much on an offstage figure, Brandon’s father, who becomes exactly the type of caricature Aguirre-Sacasa had so nimbly avoided. For a play that seems most of all about acceptance of responsibility, this work surprisingly points its finger elsewhere.