The Boys of the Peggy August Club
Trap Door Theatre
By Albert Williams
The Pirates of the Caribbean are being overhauled, as you may have heard: Disneyland's robot buccaneers, whose rowdy animatronic woman chasing has drawn increasing criticism over the years, are being reprogrammed to lust after food rather than wenches. But the self-styled studs who inhabit The Boys of the Peggy August Club, LA playwright T.H. McCulloh's dispassionate but often raunchy portrait of a bachelor bacchanal, aren't much interested in eating. Their raucous partying is fueled by a little pot, a lot of beer, and the promise of a fast fuck with superhooker Peggy August. A sort of California cultic-sex priestess demanding orgasmic worship, she's the centerpiece of their autumnal rite of passage: the party's guest of honor (who never even shows up) is about to be married, signaling the breakup of an all-male clique forged in the lunchrooms and locker rooms of high school. Waiting for their turn in the offstage RV that serves as Peggy's temple, these slacker sexists banter, boast, and bully one another, dimly aware that the irresponsible summer of adolescence, suggested by Peggy's name, is about to pass into the chilly winter of adulthood.
Set in the back room of a San Fernando Valley roadhouse, The Boys of the Peggy August Club is an effective ensemble showpiece for 11 young actors, and it's beautifully played in this Chicago premiere by Trap Door Theatre. McCulloh's unpublished 1991 script--reportedly produced only once before, at the California Institute of the Arts (where Trap Door's artistic director, Beata Pilch, saw it as a student)--offers no profound new insights into wasted youth and macho misogyny. But it holds its own in a genre that broadly ranges from Eric Bogosian's SubUrbia and Howard Korder's Boys' Life to the movies Diner and even Porky's, thanks to the playwright's tone of clinical objectivity and to director Michael S. Pieper's realistic replication of an all-male pack's social and sexual dynamics--the way a bout of good-natured roughhousing can suddenly turn vicious and a predator can become prey.
As the characters are introduced and their postadolescent crises revealed, focal points emerge and dissipate with deceptive randomness. Conversations, confessions, and conflicts ebb and flow, punctuated by occasional explosions of violence (skillfully staged by Danny Robles). And though the overlapping dialogue and noisy outbursts obscure some of the text, the play captures our attention with its recognizable, credibly played characters. Danny (David Nicksic), who's hosting the event in his parents' restaurant, is the ringleader, a sleazy control freak who proclaims a gospel of male camaraderie that relegates women to a paradoxically marginal and indispensable position. Edgar (Clay Calvin), the restaurant's manager and the group's only black, takes Danny's arrogance in stride as he brings in round after round of brews. Conrad (Eric Johnson) is Peggy's pimp, stoking the boys' libidos with tales of his client's stalwart professionalism and sexual insatiability. Juan (Lawrence Silver) is the proud cocksman, frequently leading the gang in their mockery of one another's virginity, penis size, looks, and possible homosexuality. Wink (Ken Volp) is the Valley-boy stoner, grinning naughtily as he bops to a rock 'n' roll sound track, whose most prominent tunes--Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back in Town" and the Who's "Who Are You"--embody McCulloh's preoccupation with group versus individual identity.
Browning (Patrick Brennan) is the dorky, bespectacled outsider, thrilled to be invited to such a cool event; he's freaked when handsome, enigmatic Kemp (Chuck Raucci) asks him if he's gay--both are avowedly heterosexual, but it's unclear whether they're telling the truth. Mack (Eric Haessler) is the stocky conservative whose stiffness dissolves into giggles when he smokes his first joint; and Rocky, aka Pebbles (Bob Rusch), is the slob who resents his role as the group's official dummy--not that any of them is exactly a rocket scientist--but is desperate to be accepted. One by one each takes his shot at Peggy (whom we never see), returning after a few minutes to experience the ritual's all-important climax: bragging to one's buddies.
Only two characters decline to avail themselves of Peggy's charms. Horny (Michael Garvey) disdains the gang bang--"It's sexist," he says. And anyway he's got a live-in girlfriend. Tadpole (Eric Johner), the high school gymnastics star who's come to realize he's not as good as he thought, is a virgin and proud of it, intent on saving himself for marriage so "it will be beautiful." When Danny declares that Tadpole should be "a member of the club," the group forces him to have sex with Peggy, stripping him naked and dragging him out to the van. Muscular, jut-jawed Horny denounces the forced deflowering but fails to intervene, settling for sideline philosophizing ("This too shall pass"), proving himself the clan's weakest member rather than its strongest. Though Johner plays Tadpole's postcoital shame with a poignant sense of defeat, the playwright resists pathos in favor of dry honesty: "She wasn't even pretty," Tadpole muses of his life-changing experience.
With its large cast fairly spilling off the cramped, raked Trap Door stage--the theater's makeshift seating allows for hardly more viewers than there are cast members--The Boys of the Peggy August Club makes its dramatic points strongly yet feels like the party it portrays--sloppy, spontaneous, and seemingly aimless. The intimacy of the theater reinforces this feeling, making us complicit in Tadpole's humiliation. The strong, honest ensemble acting allows the play's bitter, funny, and sad moments to flow together without sacrificing the overall tone of dispassionate behavioral study. A slight but strong work, The Boys of the Peggy August Club is the kind of reckless, impractical, edgily energetic production that established Chicago theater as a force to be reckoned with a generation ago--and that marks Trap Door as a significant troupe for today.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Vesna Grbovic.