The Dear Boy
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 6, 2005
Wilson Chin's set for The Dear Boy arrested my attention as soon as I took my seat in the theatre. First of all, its walls are lined with books, hundreds of them, and I love books: I could make out several volumes of the Durants' world history series, Joan Peyser's Leonard Bernstein biography and something with the tantalizing title Moo. Second of all, as I studied it, I realized that it couldn't possibly represent only one room; and as Dan O'Brien's play progressed, I was proved correct: it's actually three rooms, shown to us simultaneously—a teacher's office (table and chairs at dead center), a bar or other sort of party room (open areas at the perimeter of the stage), and a sublet apartment belonging to two poets (hence all the books).
This set is ambitious and not a little confusing; so is the play itself. O'Brien's first scene suggests that The Dear Boy is about a teacher who is going to learn something crucial from one of his students (the press release tells us this as well). James Flanagan, the 60ish high school English teacher, has invited one of his 17-year-old students, James Doyle, to go over his assignment. Young James was to write a short paper in the style of James Joyce about one of his heroes, and Flanagan is disturbed about the story that his student has turned in. Specifically, Doyle's paper features a kid shooting his English teacher, which alarms Flanagan. Doyle tells Flanagan that he obviously hates all of his students, which alarms him even more. Though parts of the scene sometimes threaten to defy credibility, we are nevertheless hooked.
But gears switch radically in Scene Two, at a faculty holiday party where Flanagan is chatting with colleagues Richard Purdy and Elise Sanger. Richard is gay and is very concerned that he will be passed over for the department chairmanship after Flanagan retires because of his sexuality. Elise flirts with Flanagan, and eventually invites him home with her—but not before Richard almost spills the beans about Flanagan's Big Secret (which was not at all difficult to guess, but will nonetheless not be disclosed here). In Scene Three, Flanagan and Elise are in her apartment (the one she sublets from the poets) and more revelations come to the fore.
Does the sad old English teacher learn anything? Maybe, but whatever it is fights for attention among the myriad details and tangential plot ideas that O'Brien keeps throwing at us. Richard's storyline is all about institutionalized homophobia. Elise's storyline is about sexual repression and hero worship. Doyle's storyline veers into the area of abuse (or does it?—O'Brien is muddy on this point). Does Flanagan's own sexual nature stem from a childhood incident of abuse? Does Flanagan like his students? Is he a latent pedophile? O'Brien tantalizes us with all of these suppositions but never resolves them, or makes any of them central to his play's (absent) thesis.
Why does O'Brien work so diligently to be politically incorrect? The play features gratuitous offensive remarks about Jews, African Americans, women, gays, and other groups. Is O'Brien trying to make a point about classism in America? The play's setting is a public high school in the affluent community of Scarsdale, and the teachers bemoan the difference in economic status between themselves and their rich students. But the only student we actually meet—young Doyle—seems to hail from the wrong side of Scarsdale's tracks.
I found myself noticing technical problems with the script, Both Flanagan and Richard Purdy use the same trite phrase "Thank you very much" in the same sarcastic manner, leading me to wonder why the playwright failed to differentiate their voices. And Elise says "yadda yadda yadda" at one point, though the script informs us (for no apparent reason) that the year is 1990, well before this catchphrase came into common currency.
I point these bits of carelessness out because they're indicative of the larger problem with The Dear Boy, namely, its sloppy and unfocused writing. In the end, I was completely bewildered by what O'Brien was trying to accomplish. And Michael John Garces (the director); Daniel Gerroll, T. Scott Cunningham, Dan McCabe, and Susan Pourfar (the actors); and Chin and his fellow designers were never able to clarify things for me.