To Whom It May Concern
nytheatre.com review by David Ian Lee
March 26, 2009
The Entertainment Agora's To Whom It May Concern, currently playing at the Arclight Theatre, tells the story of an Afghanistan-deployed U.S. Marine who receives a fan letter from a 15-year-old boy from Abilene, Kansas. The soldier, Maurice A. Creely (Matt Alford), and the boy, Lorenzo Lafarhoff (Israel Gutierrez) begin an online correspondence, fraught with secrets and deception, both of self and each other; Creely may not be the war hero he's been branded by stateside newspapers, and Lafarhoff is certainly not the buxom, sexually curious female cheerleader he purports himself to be. As their relationship turns toward online sex and the suggestions of emotional and erotic satisfaction that can only exist in the avatar-filled vacuum of cyberspace, the play moves toward an inevitable and potentially devastating plot point: Creely has two weeks of leave, and—come hell or high water—he's headed to Abilene to find the nubile girl of his affections.
Such a premise—the heroic soldier, in love with a man he believes to be a woman—could suggest French farce or the best of English sex comedy. However, in the play's latter and far superior second half, the confrontation between Creely and Lafarhoff proves revelatory, and allows for an exploration of many heady, seemingly incongruous themes: the toll of war, the persecution and loneliness felt by many young men and women as they grapple with sexual identity, and the horrific self-loathing that may consume men of all ages and stripes who choose to bury their secrets and live private lives steeped in denial. Indeed, the ideas on display in To Whom It May Concern are sweeping and provocative; playwright Aurin Squire deserves commendation for his invention and curiosity.
However, the structure of To Whom It May Concern does not hold up under scrutiny, and audience members may find themselves questioning the play rather than their preconceptions of duty and attraction. Why doesn't Creely react more forcefully upon learning his long-distance lover is a teenaged boy? Why does Lafarhoff occasionally speak in the idioms and knowing metaphors of a far older, more seasoned voice? Most troubling of all, To Whom It May Concern occasionally veers perilously close to mere homoerotic fantasy; by the time we're treated to a liberal dose of skin, exchanged saliva, and a romp or two in a minor's bed, it's fair to find certain behavior on the part of the characters incongruous given how they are otherwise presented.
To their credit, Alford and Gutierrez make valiant efforts to smooth over the material's lumps and divots. Alford starts strong, convincingly playing a cocksure leatherneck of unwavering patriotism and duty; a long monologue late in the play offers a window into the Marine's troubled soul, and Alford does well with it. However, too often Alford seems to be struggling with a character whose motives and actions strain logic and appear designed to serve the functionality of the play.
Gutierrez suffers by a different sword; though a talented young actor, he is simply miscast, far too sure in voice, body, and demeanor to believably portray a character so much his junior. Still, Gutierrez attacks the role with honesty and courage. By the play's end, Lafarhoff is clearly changed, and those in the audience may have the intellectual—if not the cathartic—awareness that they should be, too.
Ultimately, To Whom It May Concern proves unable to escape the trappings of cliché and mere adequacy due to David Gaard's seemingly half-hearted direction. The first 40 minutes of this 90-minute one-act play include little creative staging for Creely and Lafarhoff's on-line correspondence; the actors sit, reading their email aloud with the fluidity of conversation, not a writer's discovery. Though Squire has clearly crafted this portion of To Whom It May Concern with a stylistic intent differing from the long confrontation in Lafarhoff's bedroom, Gaard's inert blocking offers no such invention. The bedroom set constantly dominates the stage, with the whole of Afghanistan represented down-right by an ugly, sand-colored curtain. Gaard's occasional directorial flourishes actually serve to undercut the effectiveness of Squire's script; no fewer than three times are scenes underscored with maudlin ballads featuring crooning, too-on-the-nose lyrics. Such unawareness and self-import unfortunately hinder much of this otherwise intriguing, potentially thoughtful play.