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The Beast Within

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Boy Gets Girl

Goodman Theatre

By Adam Langer

Those whose theatrical tastes tend toward the exquisite poetry of Eugene O'Neill--whose Moon for the Misbegotten was the Goodman's most recent production--will no doubt find Rebecca Gilman's Goodman debut somewhat disappointing. There are no beautiful, soaring passages in Boy Gets Girl, and few gracefully turned phrases or memorable lines. There's no sense of the heightened reality that traditionally distinguishes theater from television or mainstream cinema. Gilman's beat is everyday contemporary life. And as in Spinning Into Butter, Crime of the Century, and The Glory of Living, she confronts a difficult topical or historical issue in a straightforward manner.

This play--about a woman stalked after a blind date--takes place in a very tangible, identifiable world that borders at times on the banal. Gilman's characters are noteworthy not because they're outstanding in any way but because they remind us of everyday folks, the people we sit next to on airplanes or trains, the people we see around us in traffic jams on the Kennedy. Ditto for her dialogue. The generic cadences of her characters are so familiar we might be eavesdropping on yuppies in a food court or at the Cheesecake Factory. Though the setting is identified as New York, it could just as easily be Chicago--the Manhattan references seem plugged in to guarantee the play's east-coast viability.

The first and in some ways the best scene shows Theresa Bedell, a reporter for a magazine vaguely reminiscent of both Harper's and Vanity Fair, on a first date with Tony Ross, an affable, Big Ten-educated software consultant. Every squirmy moment in the scene--every forced joke, every uncomfortable pause--confirms that this is an encounter so uninteresting it doesn't even qualify as a bad date. The two have nothing in common: Theresa is cultured and liberal, while Tony is a reactionary who's only able to identify Edith Wharton when he realizes that a movie was made of one of her books, the sort of pud who can't understand why a "nice guy" like him doesn't get more dates. There are subtle hints of Tony's possessiveness--his irritating, patronizing insistence on buying the first round of drinks, for example--but very little to indicate the psychotic creep he'll ultimately reveal himself to be. It all should end right there, but politeness makes Theresa agree to another meeting.

Tony and Theresa's second date--even less comfortable than the first--again shows Gilman's talent for finding resounding truths in the most commonplace scenes. Tony's sexism becomes more apparent, and Theresa's patience wears thin: she calls the evening to an early close, letting Tony down gently by telling him that she's not ready for a serious relationship. Big mistake. As anyone knows, telling a creep you're not ready for a relationship often means he'll wait around until you are ready.

The terrain of male-female relationships is much more effectively drawn than Theresa's hastily sketched New York magazine milieu. At some point Tony crosses the hard-to-pinpoint border between everyday loser and dangerous stalker. There are bouquets of flowers. There are plaintive phone calls. He leaves voice mails, E-mails. He tries to confront her at her office, and then his behavior becomes even more threatening, to the point that a restraining order isn't enough to deter him.

What's both frightening and depressing about Tony's actions--and the source of the play's strength--is the fact that what Tony does is so believable. One can't help but be reminded of dozens of incidents like it from one's own life. There was the freshman dormitory neighbor who sent a Domino's pizza every day to the woman who dumped him, for example. Or the dorky friend who dropped a flower a day on the driveway of a woman who'd left him. There are even the things one might have done in one's own stupid youth, like driving by someone's apartment just to see if she was home.

Gilman's play forces us to consider the possibility that Tony's shocking behavior isn't all that unusual. In the worldview she so convincingly presents, he's just a particularly flagrant example of a larger problem: male objectification of women. The other male characters just fall on different points in the continuum. Howard Siegel and Mercer Stevens, Theresa's editor and coworker, are both seemingly harmless, reasonable men, but that doesn't stop them from fantasizing about the new assistant when she leaves the room. Mercer is so concerned about Theresa's predicament that he seems ripe stalker material himself despite his liberated-male guise. In fact the play's most likable male character is a soft-core filmmaker Theresa interviews for the magazine. Les Kennkat--who's directed Ga Ga Girls Galore! and seems clearly patterned after Russ Meyer--may be a pig but at least he's not a hypocrite. And in Gilman's world, where most men adopt politically correct poses, his ribald honesty is refreshing.

An effective work, Boy Gets Girl commands our attention. It's also great material for social analysis and postshow discussion. ("If anybody tried to start that with my daughter, I'd kill him before the police even started to get involved," one middle-aged father said on the way out. "I'll think twice before I start reading the personal ads," said another. Both offered more intelligent responses than the fellow who remarked, "That guy with the tit jokes was funny.")

But whether it's great theater is debatable. Director Michael Maggio does an excellent job of coaxing deft, realistic portrayals from his cast, with especially fine performances by Mary Beth Fisher, utterly believable in every moment as Theresa; Ian Lithgow, terrifyingly innocuous as Tony; and Howard Witt as Kennkat, stealing every scene he's in. And Gilman takes pains to examine the issues she presents from multiple perspectives.

That comprehensiveness is commendable in its way, but coupled with Gilman's refusal to maneuver outside a very grounded reality, it produces a very untheatrical work: Boy Gets Girl is virtually indistinguishable from a well-crafted TV drama or Hollywood movie. It never moves or transports us but remains the everyday thing it is, an accurately rendered facsimile of contemporary society.

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

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