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Bovver Boys

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Symposium Theatre Company, at the Organic Theater Company Greenhouse.

Willie Holtzman's 1990 play about a street gang in Scotland in 1970 and the draft-dodging American Quaker who tries to reform them is clever, well written, and thrilling to watch. That's part of the problem: Holtzman is so adept at manipulating his audience and twisting the conventions of this oft-told melodrama that the play feels empty and morally bankrupt.

At first Holtzman's American protagonist seems to be reliving the experience of Bing Crosby in Going My Way or Sidney Poitier in To Sir With Love: outsider slowly wins over lower-class thugs. But later, when his nonviolence begins to seem not a strength but a weakness, his attempts to keep the Suedes from going on a bovver (a Scottish rumble) only make things worse. Overcompensating, the Quaker morphs into Billy Jack and gives a psychotic gang member the beating of his life.

We in the audience are never asked to be anything but passive observers of all this: moved by the love story, horrified by the rape, excited by all the head butting and blood, engaged by the ever-twisting plot. What we're never asked to do by Holtzman's play, or by Kay Cosgriff's remarkably intense, energetic, and polished production, is think. Or do something about the very real social problems portrayed. We leave the play thinking essentially the same fuzzy thoughts we had when we entered, only maybe a little more paranoid about urban violence and Chicago's version of the bovver boys.

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