New American Theatre’s Production of “Boys’ Life”: A Mature Examination of an Era Past

Jeff Kongs (left) and Brendan Brandt (right), Photo Courtesy of Ioanna Meli

Jeff Kongs (left) and Brendan Brandt (right), Photo Courtesy of Ioanna Meli

Imagine if you will, dating in the 80s and/or — let me rephrase that — being and becoming a man in the eighties and having to deal with women, their confusions, their complexities when really, you as the man are just as convoluted. Do you suppose it might have been any easier or less confusing than it is today?  Surprisingly not.  Even in an era bereft of cellular texts, the dating world is none the less clear and/or concise; this all in spite of the fact that tried and true human conversation never really required any sort of electronic spell check…

It is a lively night at the Theatre Asylum on Santa Monica Blvd wherein so many productions are transpiring simultaneously, it is hard to know which space in the teeming maze of theatres to approach. Boys’ Life by Howard Korder as it would perchance occur is being performed in the theatre closest to the ladies’ room, but the men’s room is not all too far adjacent so I guess it’s not all that pointed an irony, but certainly still worth noting…?  Upon entry into the small and homey lobby, replete with a soda and snack machines, flanked by a couch, some fold out chairs and a potted plant or two, wine will be served for a mere donation and is perfectly allowed into the auditorium.  Ahhh, my kind of theatre!

As the lights begin to dim to the din of the likes of Robert Palmer and the Gogos (and potentially Jerry Garcia’s Pac Man Fever?—one can only have wished) Producer Jeannine Wisnosky Stehlin will give a rousing explanation of the most interesting manner in which the play has been cast. As there are so many dedicated actresses involved in The New American Theatre, alternating weeks, each of the women’s roles will be portrayed by what will be referred to as an Eastside cast and a Westside cast, double the dramatis personae incumbent upon travel directions en route to the playhouse:  genius!!!  (All the while I can’t help but wonder how many minutes later the cast is assembled on the Westside nights and/or how much more delayed or timely performances might commence on alternating weeks.) Tonight’s performance will encompass the Eastside cast. And as always in the most decade appropriate pre-performance admonishment, we will be reminded to silence all cell phones, “because these were not invented in the 1980s and everybody’s gonna freak out and not know what that sound is…”

At the point which the lights dim in all their entirety, my mind does a double trip as I now realize, “Oh my God…everything and everyone onstage during the next, like, hour and a half, is gonna be back in the eighties, and we, the audience will remain in full-on present day!!!—Whoaaa trippyyyy!!!” Love it!!!

As the lights come up on our three male protagonists, my musings are congruously echoed by the scent of fake marijuana smoke emanating from the stage as central protagonist Jack guides the opening non-conversational trialogue by inquiring after the likes of Phil and Don non-respectively, “Name three things that happened in the 1970s!” Don, lolling about in his hashish-induced haze can only recollect two: “Watergate…The Sex Pistols…”  Phil cannot answer at all as he is entrenched an Emerson Lake and Palmer escapade at the foot of Don’s boom box to the tune of chunky, clunky earphones.  If the description of the play hadn’t specified that this trio were post collegiate companions, we might think they remained back in the seventies—schooling it up (with a time machine as their only ally causing them to recollect the seventies in the first place—either that or are perhaps more majorly stoned than we might have first imagined!)

In essence, three men/boys having matured in the seventies are now attempting to grow up; well two of them in the form of Don and Phil, the other under the guise of the group’s front man Jack, one senses, is endeavoring to grow down—or bring the others down with him via his own manipulative immaturity. “How’s your sex life?” he will inquire of one, more likely than not to compare that of his own, then speculate about the other’s possible so-called sexual deviance behind the other’s back.

Ioanna Meli (left), Brendan Brandt (right), Photo Courtesy of Kitty Rose

Ioanna Meli (left), Brendan Brandt (right), Photo Courtesy of Kitty Rose

The play follows all three through their attempts at love, romantic actualization and possible thwarting manipulation at the hands of Jack. During the course of our journey the more shy and retiring Phil will bumble his way through rejections and/or half assed acceptances (along with a fairly despicable admission at the play’s conclusion). “I love you” he will blurt out to a rather consternated and estranged Karen at a party as he corners her in the coat room/bedroom. “I think about you a lot…at work, in the shower, the Laundromat, places like that…  I’m all swollen and rotten inside because of you…I’m crazy about you, you know that!”

“I’m not worth it Phil.” Is her predominant response as the man with whom she originally attended the party finally barges in one last time in an attempt to procure his coat, “She was my date but I don’t think it’s going to work out,” he will glibly intone.

Don, the seemingly most balanced of the three, has some marginal success in his attempts, strained as they are, as he actually manages to land a serious relationship but not before sleeping with a crazy woman who’s role is simply denoted as the Girl in the program. “I’m mentally ill, does that bother you?” she will ask after lovemaking. She will immediately begin describing a childhood eating disorder she adopted in order to make herself disappear, “Getting rid of my flesh was easy but I couldn’t figure out how to get rid of my bones…  My father tried to run me over with a steam roller.  He wanted to kill me ‘cause he wasn’t allowed to fuck me.”

Noah James (left), Carly Waldman (right), Photo Courtesy of Kitty Rose

Noah James (left), Carly Waldman (right), Photo Courtesy of Kitty Rose

Don will eventually settle for Lisa, a waitress who is a sculptor and a completely unromantic one at that as she accuses Don of trying to suck up to her when he expresses (or feigns, in her eyes) interest in it. She is seemingly unromantic and unappreciative in pretty much every other facet of life as well, but she is the woman Don ultimately chooses over all others. Lisa’s related diffidence is not unwarranted regarding their relationship however as, even up until he declares his need to be with her, Don just keeps “getting his dick stuck in things” including the heretofore crazy girl.

Jack in all his mischievous restlessness does all he can to eschew all convention, decency, and the mundane, when it is he who–surprisingly enough–lives the so-called adult American dream; wife, son, and enough free time left over to hang with his buds. Though he is shown attempting to have affairs, and manipulate his male friends, he never seems to thrive at this endeavor as nearly every woman he encounters seems to be on to his game and every male seems hesitant to fully engage him.

“We know each other. We know who we really are.  [We’re men.] Let’s admit that we do terrible things….what do you want Don?  Be honest.  I’m your friend Don.  I care about you!”

And under the auspices of another most sage and astute lecture/monologue Jack will opine, “It doesn’t matter what you do Phil because one’s watching,” as an excuse not to follow any sort of moral code, sexual or otherwise.

As a little surprise in the end, and as per one very astute woman cursory to his life, we may just discover that Jack may not be all he attempts at portraying to the outside world.

My view regarding the play overall as written is mixed. On the one hand it appears to be a somewhat entertaining slice of life and character studies, albeit abbreviated character studies as it is decidedly lacking in on any form of noted revelation or, catharsis or fleshed out character development .  On the other hand, its absence of any sort of grand sweeping dramatic arches instills echoes of awkward silences in my psyche the likes of which I simply cannot ignore.  Throughout the entire story the steel line of tension between the three men and in relation to the men and nearly all the women they meet is too great to dismiss and I just kept anticipating some subtle to large explosion or possible revelation and none ever came.  There was however a part of me that did enjoy the confusion engendered within the subtleties as it more approximately mirrored real life.

At certain points, one senses the play is trapped in the eighties and relevant contemporary sensibilities for never wanting to fully acknowledge them!

In kind, I have a difficult time in understanding what makes this piece so patently eighties (hindsight being 20/20 of course as the past does not become the least bit poignant if one is writing about it in the present.) Penned in 1988 long after AIDS was merely understood as a gay man’s disease, if there was any acknowledgment of it, it was merely mentioned as a side speculation by the most insecure of our characters, Phil whilst making small talk to a single woman via his socio-sexual insecurity, lamenting the fact that he fell asleep in a hot tub for two hours.  Upon waking up with a headache he hopes it is because he doesn’t have ‘it’? What Phil?  Pray tell Phil what?  Dehydration perchance or um–AIDS?  I hear those often get confused for one another.  Hmm…

Jeff Kongs (left), Kate Parkin (right), Photo Courtesy of Kitty Rose

Jeff Kongs (left), Kate Parkin (right), Photo Courtesy of Kitty Rose

Condom use is also referenced briefly when Don, asking Lisa to be the hub of his heart has just been discovered to be in possession of a mysterious set of panties. “Did you use a condom,” she will query to a bewildered head nod at the hands of our dithering  Don Juan DeMarco…

Relevantly speaking however, one senses that the title Boys’ Life is not merely a reference to men trying to become boys or vice versa, but that of an entire generation, time frame and zeitgeist attempting to achieve actualization via growth and change.

The predominant myth of eras past (from the 1950s on prior) thrives on the notion that because men and women retained more defined rules and roles that would put them in boxes, the world was somehow formerly brimming with happiness. Now that those boxes are being banged up and bludgeoned, so is everyone’s psyche from all the confusion this engenders.  Examples of this can be observed in one of Don’s first more serious dates as Lisa declares she will only go home with him if he allows her to pay for their dinner.  Hmmm…Okay then, who really got the better deal here…?

At a certain point in the story, it is made mention that “men can do whatever they want” and that women basically “think men are all closet jerks”. Commensurate to both mindsets, it’s no wonder any of our three male protagonists seem to know where to end or begin with the opposite sex along with the women who don’t really love them. (And topical in my mind, particularly so close to Valentine’s Day is the question as to how many people settle for love rather than risk the uncertainty of being alone and/or exercising the patience of really looking and waiting for a near perfect mate?)

So, where does the world go from here? How really does it grow up?  As one character will lament, “Happiness, that was the sixties.  This is the modern world.  It’s kind of young.”

Though the play as written left me with a lot of questions, I enjoyed the production of it immensely, from the acting, to the soundtrack to the venue itself, The New American Theatre did a bang up job!

Direction by Jack Stehlin was well paced and fleshed out to the point where you could have heard a pin drop during various scenes.

Noah James (left), Chelsea Povall (right), Photo Courtesy of Kitty Rose

Noah James (left), Chelsea Povall (right), Photo Courtesy of Kitty Rose

Actors/Roles of note are also as follows:

Karen played by Ioanna Meli was strong and stunning. Her morosely stoic line delivery not only added to the comedy of the character but induced much laughter in the most painfully comedic of senses.

Carly Waldman as Lisa, Don’s chosen, was hm…well how does one put this?–Likeably bitchy in all the right places. The gestalt of her suspicion-fueled cynicism is decidedly palpable and being subjected to living in a world of New York men the likes of Jack and his crew (Don being the most benign) you, as a woman must completely understand it.

Chelsea Povall as the (insane) Girl was adequate to be sure, but could have had much more fun playing the part. Not to infer she should have acted patently and predictably crazy, but a more subtly nuanced performance echoing the bat shit garble she was spouting might have made for a bit more of a multi-faceted and arrestingly comedic presentation.

And then on to the men–The men, lest we forget our three pro-antagonists in the form of Jack, played by the illustrious Jeff Kongs, Phil portrayed by an endearing Brendan Brandt and Don brought to us by a most bewitching Noah James were absolutely mesmerizing (and while I realize this is completely immaterial to the reader) I will admit that I sorta fell in love with all the “boys”. (Or crushed hard perhaps, but it is a little close to Valentine’s Day so perhaps that is what swayed my romantic bent just a trifle—Hm, but no.  It was really just the “boys”.) Despite their character’s master-flaws they portrayed them so strongly but with such an air of vulnerability behind each one (yes even Jack) I’m afraid I somehow waxed amorous regarding all three, with special allowances for Don and his earnestness in actually wanting to commit to a relationship at the end…

Boys’ Life runs at Theatre Asylum until March 7th.

For tickets and information, please visit:

www.NewAmericanTheatre.com

Jennifer K. Hugus

About Jennifer K. Hugus

Jennifer K. Hugus was born at a very young age. At an even earlier age, she just knew she would one day write for the LA Beat! Having grown up in Massachusetts, France, and Denmark, she is a noted fan of Asian Cuisine. She studied ballet at the Royal Danish Ballet Theatre and acting at U.S.C. in their prestigious BFA drama program. She also makes her own jewelry out of paints and canvas when she isn’t working on writing absurdist plays and comparatively mainstream screenplays. Jennifer would like to be a KID when she grows up!
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