Monday, November 14, 2011

theatre review WILD ANIMALS YOU SHOULD KNOW, Off Broadway, November 13

"Don’t you ever want to do something just because you can?” is the key line of dialogue in the new play by Thomas Higgins, Wild Animals You Should Know.  When spoken by a restless, bored, beautiful and extremely nihilistic teenage boy with a mean streak, you know you're in for trouble.

Matthew and Jacob are best friends.  Matthew is the boy mentioned above and Jacob is his gay best friend and boy scout partner.  When the play begins it is Jacob's birthday and Matthew is giving him his birthday wish, to undress down to his underpants for him via skype.  The straight but completely nihilistic Matthew is more than happy to comply and in doing so he notices someone across the street looking out his window at him as he undressed.  This sets the play in motion as when Matthew looks through his binoculars he sees the person that is watching him from the other window just happens to be their boy scout troop leader.

Behlmann, Johnson and Glick
As the two teenage boys, Gideon Glick as Jacob and Jay Armstrong Johnson as Matthew couldn't be more realistic and natural in their parts.  The dialogue for both of them is legitimate and real, well as real as one would expect between an "anything goes" teen and his gay friend who definitely has feelings for him.  Their many scenes together range from being sweet to violent, especially when Jacob is upset with what Matthew plans to do.   Even though the two boys are completely different, Higgins uses his dialogue to set up scenes that make you see how and why they are the best of friends.

John Behlmann is the troop leader and he has the look and actions of someone who loves nature and what he can teach the boys.  He also has no idea that it was Matthew he saw undressing.   The quiet way Behlmann shows his emotions and reactions when he finds out what Matthew has planned for him, as well as the way he speaks about his former boyfriend who died, is nicely done and meaningful and completely in character.

Breen and Ripley
An overnight boy scout camping trip is where half of the play's action takes place.   Matthew's father Walter, played smartly by Patrick Breen, has recently lost his job and feels restless like his son does but he also feels lost in his life.  He spent many years dedicated to his job and was a mostly absent father for Matthew and so his wife volunteers him to chaperon the camping trip, feeling that it will help both father and son.   While I liked how Breen portrayed the part, the scenes between him and fellow scout father Daniel Stewart Sherman didn't really go anywhere.  The same can be said for most of the scenes with Breen and his wife, played by an underused Alice Ripley.

Matthew clearly wants to destroy someone, but it isn't exactly clear why he does.  Just because he can, as that line of dialogue above mentions, isn't a good enough reason and that is my biggest problem with the play. While the scenes with the two boys seem polished, the rest of the play still feels underwritten and lacking a focused meaning even after having a couple of workshops and readings.  While the scenes between Matthew's parents are underwritten as well as most of the ones between the adults in the show, there is one touching scene between Breen and Glick toward the end of the play that is very effective.

Direction by Trip Cullman is well suited to the small space and cast.  I also liked the use of what I assumed were Boy Scout Guide chapter titles that were projected above the set to set the  message of each scene.  With phrases like "how to start a fire" and the title of the play "wild animals you should know" they were very effective in the double meaning of these titles in relation to the events of the play.

Sexual tension is appropriately apparent and the play leaves one with many questions for debate, which can be a good thing.  There is an interesting point somewhere in this play but Higgins needs to take another crack at his play to figure out exactly what he wants it to say.

Official Show Site

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