nytheatre.com review by Amber Gallery
August 21, 2008
Everything about Wildboy '74 works. One would not have had to read any history on the play to know that it has been helmed more than once with the same core team of talented artists. Under the astute direction of Adrian A. Cruz, Wildboy '74 is a smart, relentless, and provocative piece of theatre. One doesn't watch it, one is hypnotized by it.
The title describes character Ethan Strong, a self-help guru who specializes in breaking people out of their own symbolic "cages" to lead more fulfilling lives. Ethan's cage was literal—his mother kept him locked in one in the family's basement from age 3 until he was 13. As we unfortunately don't have to imagine in the age of Elisabeth Fritzl, there was a media circus upon his release, and Ethan, many years past the trauma and into adulthood, has turned the experience into a way to help others with books and lecture tours all over the country.
Ethan and his personal assistant Elliott are clearly locked in an unhealthy, co-dependent working relationship. Ethan's tour has brought them to a four-day stay in Delaware with New York City on the horizon. While Ethan's sanity is slowly unraveling and his lectures become more and more erratic, Elliott becomes involved with a tough-as-nails woman named Tess. Tess is searching for her missing sister, Lotte. Lotte, a beautifully free-spirited yet clearly disturbed young woman, seems to be searching for acceptance anywhere she can get it—or at the very least for someone to listen to her. All four characters are lost souls, but not without the hope of human connection and their stories come together in the play's disquieting conclusion.
The set, originally designed by Jason Adams and tweaked for the easy in-and-out of the festival by director Cruz, would work in almost any space it is put in. The minimalist black and white set, with two tall, symmetrical beds draped in blood-red sheets and raised on an angle, creates an eerie tone from the moment you step into the theater. John Zalewski's pre-show music only makes this better. In fact, Zalewski's brilliant sound design does more than simply intensify the mood, it creates it. Cruz also takes advantage of the different levels available in the space by placing a key scene on a "rooftop" above the set.
Although there is a good story in Eva Anderson's script, the play is clearly character-driven. Anderson creates four rich, multi-faceted individuals any actor would be honored to play. And her style of storytelling is stunning. By presenting the story in non-linear fragments, she forces us to pay closer attention to each scene and we cannot help but be drawn in by the characters. It is difficult to accomplish this outside of an editing room, but Anderson's play accomplishes it with the help of the production's four wonderful actors.
The standout is Ben Messmer in the role of "wildboy" Ethan Strong. Messmer gives one of the most raw, honest performances I've seen on stage and he is a positively brilliant actor. Messmer's turns from humor to awkwardness to despair each fill the whole room and there isn't a false moment to be felt. Lucy Griffin is captivating as Lotte. Trevor Peterson and Natalie Urquhart are solid performers who show strength and vulnerability with equal ability.
This play is not for everyone, certainly not the faint-of-heart, but with such a powerful team, this is a must-see.