Arts & Culture » Performing Arts Review

Beware the Dashing Stranger

Rebecca Gilman's Boy Gets Girl explodes romantic cliches.

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Boy Gets Girl | Eclipse Theatre Company

WHEN Through 12/17: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM

WHERE Victory Gardens Greenhouse Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln

PRICE $18-$22

INFO 773-871-3000

Playwright Rebecca Gilman has made a lot of missteps in recent work, venturing into cartoonish class politics in 2001's Blue Surge and 2005's Dollhouse. But her Boy Gets Girl--a hit at the Goodman in 2000--shows off her strengths: acidic observational humor based on the human urge for self-aggrandizement and the deft creation of a pervasive sense of menace. A smarter, more insightful version of the stalker movies clogging the Lifetime channel, Boy Gets Girl focuses on the conflict between cultural assumptions about romance and how they play out in real life. An outstanding cast, directed by Steve Scott for Eclipse Theatre's last production in its all-Gilman season, keeps the play popping and simmering.

Theresa is a smart, brittle magazine writer living in Manhattan who's been fixed up with computer software trainer Tony. The play starts with a lie. Rather than admit to cold feet when she's late, Theresa pretends her cell phone isn't working--then gets a call from the friend who set her up. By the second date Theresa's decided Tony isn't her type and tries to let him down easy. Maybe it's too soon after her last relationship. Maybe she's too focused on her career. But her brush-off doesn't take. Tony sends flowers daily, leaves voice mails at her office, and drops by unannounced. Things get really creepy when he somehow gets her unlisted home number, and Theresa asks for help from her coworkers, avuncular editor Howard and ambitious fellow writer Mercer. When Tony sends a particularly ugly letter she calls the cops. A female detective tells her to change her phone number and think about changing her name. Theresa asks, "What's the worst thing that could happen?" and the detective quietly answers, "You don't want to know."

The emotional complexity of Gilman's script lifts it above the level of a cop-shop drama with feminist underpinnings. As played by Michelle Courvais, Theresa isn't warm or approachable. When Tony accuses her of avoiding intimacy then says, "Guess I struck a nerve," it's obvious he has. Theresa's scenes with a brusque but honest interview subject, Russ Meyer-esque movie director Les Kennkat, are also revealing. Kennkat likes big boobs and he cannot lie. Though initially Theresa is priggishly disapproving of his objectification and exploitation of women, she comes to like this straight shooter and accept his fetishes. One of their best exchanges exposes the transactional nature and unspoken rules of human interaction. During their initial interview Theresa launches into a set-piece monologue about trying to measure up to the example of journalist Ernie Pyle, a revered figure at her alma mater, Indiana University. When she briefly pauses Kennkat interjects, "I'm sure that's real nice, but we're not talking about you, now are we?" In that moment Gilman encapsulates how tricky it is to negotiate the terrain of dispensing personal information.

Boy Gets Girl has its misfires. A standard-issue ditzy secretary at Theresa's office is unrealistically incompetent given the plethora of bright young women in Manhattan chomping at the bit for editorial work. A torturous subplot concerning Mercer's abortive attempt to write about Theresa's predicament doesn't pay off, nor does his admission to Howard that he feels a kinship with Tony because he was once drawn to Theresa. Gilman doesn't render very clearly the distinction between finding a woman attractive and threatening her with physical harm. And Theresa's final decision about how best to avoid Tony seems unlikely to work in the long run.

But in contrast to Gilman's more recent scripts, neatly boxed along familiar lines of class identity, Boy Gets Girl exhibits a welcome messiness and uncertainty. Theresa's chance encounter with Tony undoes every assumption she has about herself and everything she's worked for. And by depicting the dark side of romantic comedies, with their aggressively amorous dashing strangers, Gilman skillfully upends the desire to live according to cherished cultural cliches.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Betsy Lent.

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