A sex scandal that rips through an elite D.C. prep school serves to expose how a culture of entitlement breeds insensitivity and perceived superiority in “Good Boys and True.” Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa was clearly paying attention in playwriting class — the engrossing drama marches through a checklist of exposition, conflict, tension, disclosure and confrontation with a brisk efficiency matched in Scott Ellis’ polished, persuasively acted production. But it feels like the overdetermined play is doing a job rather than expressing genuine moral outrage; it spins a juicy story but lacks the psychological texture to make its themes resonate beyond the scenario at hand.
Despite echoes of any number of recent headlines, Aguirre-Sacasa sets his story in 1988. What better time and place than the nation’s capital during the go-getter Reagan years in which to reflect on ruthless arrogance born of privilege? And what better period than at the zenith of AIDS hysteria, under a government that stubbornly refused to address the crisis, to examine the heightened stigma keeping terrified young gay men in the closet?
“Good Boys” is the work of an intelligent, compassionate writer who pays lip service to that sociopolitical backdrop, along with the often invisible injustices of the American class divide. What’s missing is the deeper insight that would have allowed the unsettling truths raised by this taut but unoriginal and increasingly contrived drama to linger longer than the curtain calls.
Designer Derek McLane elegantly frames the action with imposing walls containing row upon row of gleaming gold sports trophies — an effect that screams establishment, achievement, droit de seigneur, to the victor the spoils and all that. The Master-of-the-Universe-in-the-making here is Brandon (Brian J. Smith), the impossibly handsome, aggressively charming son of two surgeons, who’s captain of the football team at St. Joseph’s Prep.
With swiftness and economy, Aguirre-Sacasa reveals that a video has surfaced at the school in which what appears to be a senior, his face carefully obscured, is seen taking brutal sexual advantage of a girl. Anxious to keep the tape “off the radar” and to shield his star athlete and the son of his former St. Joe’s classmate, the coach (Lee Tergesen) approaches Brandon’s mother, Elizabeth (J. Smith-Cameron). When she confronts Brandon about the incident, he denies his involvement and all knowledge of it. But Elizabeth’s doubts clash with her protective impulses, and guilt over her own complicitous silence in a parallel transgression from the past begins to chip away at the walls of her complacency.
That historical perspective is just one of the schematic developments that soften the play, which makes it amply apparent that this environment distills warped but formative attitudes into its men, without the need to spell it out along the bloodline. Also frustrating is the protracted absence of Brandon’s father; his influence weighs heavily, but he’s belaboredly kept out of the action by a Third World medical expedition. In a family of such entrenched respectability, dad would be back in a flash at the first murmur of public disgrace.
While it’s sketchy in illustrating how forces beyond the core characters respond to the scandal, the play is on firmer ground in intimate confrontations.
Particularly strong are the sexually tense encounters between Brandon and his gay classmate Justin (Christopher Abbott in a smart, sensitive perf), whose clandestine relationship has major bearing on the central drama. And Elizabeth’s talks with her sister Maddy (Kellie Overbey), a teacher with a knee-jerk reaction against moneyed privilege, help shed light on the mother’s conflicted response. But the single most powerful scene is a meeting between Elizabeth and Cheryl (Betty Gilpin, terrific), the public high school student and food court waitress picked up and used unwittingly in the video, who explains in tough terms and without self-pity what it’s like for a lower-class girl to dream of elevation.
Aguirre-Sacasa keeps the focus primarily on the relationship between mother and son, and on Elizabeth’s feelings of betrayal upon realizing she hardly knows Brandon at all.
As the grinning jock who describes himself with only a tinge of irony as “a goddamn demi-god,” Smith ensures that Brandon is never too readable through the play’s is-it-him-or-isn’t-it? early scenes; once the truth emerges, and the golden road of his future appears to cloud over, he reveals the depths to which his perspective has been corrupted by social conditioning.
Smith-Cameron is more at home in comedy, and her crisp detachment at first seems to lower the emotional stakes, making one wish for a Laura Linney or Patricia Clarkson in the role. But her characterization becomes steadily more convincing as concerns other than Elizabeth’s maternal urges come into play. Her final exchanges, with Cheryl and then Brandon, are poignant foretastes of the bitterness to come.
“Good Boys” is very slickly constructed, and Ellis and his actors hit every mark without letting things veer too heavily into melodrama. But it’s inevitably disappointing that a play based around so many provocative issues largely limits itself to suspenseful storytelling.