nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
July 16, 2008
Theater Boys, Chip Deffaa's new musical premiering at the sixth annual Fresh Fruit Festival, kicks off with a clash of two modern day fairy tales. The first is personified by Chris, a lascivious, self-described "visionary" New York theatre director, a man full of ideas but without the necessary follow-through or capital to make them happen. Chris knows everything and everyone (he claims to be a protégé of Steven Sondheim and a collaborator of Joan of Arc) but instead of developing his ideas, he seems more content to find naïve young men, take them back to his apartment, impress them with the range of his knowledge, and seduce them.
The second modern day fairy tale involves Kipp, a wide-eyed young man, fresh off the bus after leaving his beloved hometown of Chilliwack to pursue his dream of becoming an actor. Kipp meets Chris accidentally, having stumbled into a bar to get change for a phone call. Kipp is everything you'd expect him to be: naïve, earnest, enthusiastic, and—considering Chris's repeated attempts to get him out of his clothes—incredibly patient.
Devoid of sophisticated sensuality, Chris utilizes every weapon in his repertoire: subtle insults, appeals to Kipp's integrity and lack of experience; he physically tries to undress him and finally, when all is said and done, he offers him the starring role in a play he's devising which he refers to as the "ultimate Off-Off-Off Broadway Gay Musical." The play hasn't been written yet, but the removal of Kipp's clothing will provide the proper inspiration. Take your clothes off, he says and sings, not for him but "for the theatre."
Sacrifice for the sake of Art: a third modern-day fairy tale.
Kipp leaves Chris's apartment fully clothed but returns later to take part in open-call auditions. These consist of five men recounting their own stories, around which Chris decides to base his musical. There is Rocky Kreeger, a veteran of Chris' production, "Naked Maids Dressing." Rocky came to know New York through the gossip columns of Liz Smith, and achieves his 15 minutes of fame through a chance and clumsy encounter with her. Then there is Casey DePaw, a figure skater recently fired from a production of "Romeo and Juliet on Ice," ("You'd be surprised how Shakespeare's words sound coming from non-Equity ice skaters," he says) who is having a difficult time getting over his ex-boyfriend, Danny. Then there's Braden Walker, a former child star who insists he's not gay yet describes in sensuous detail the love scenes he'd undertake with all of his co-stars if given the chance and if the role were, well, you know, artistically challenging.
Theater Boys is filled with charming characters and instantly recognizable themes yet the overall feel of the production is surprisingly inert. Part of the blame lies in the staging, which remains excruciatingly static throughout the first act. Co-directors Chip Deffaa and Gregory Garrison lean heavily on the songs and dialogue in these scenes and ignore the characters' motivations and objectives. They move the actors around the stage in the opening seduction scene without any sense of urgency, sacrificing the thrill of pursuit for expository explanation of the pursuit we should be watching. And in the audition scene, the actors tell their stories while the others sit around and watch, only rarely getting up to participate in the storytelling. Aside from making the actors work twice as hard as they need to, this tactic doesn't allow for relationships to develop among the characters. It creates a distance between the characters and the actors and gives the impression of them as islands unto themselves.
This staging problem is solved in the second act which presents Kipp's and Chris's stories of their first loves. These stories are told in flashback with grace and sensitivity and make up the most effective half hour of the show. They still rely heavily on script and exposition but Deffaa and Garrison stand back and finally allow the events and actions their say. These moments work because they provide real insight into the characters' motivations in the proceeding scenes and give a taste of the events that transform them into the people we meet in the first act.
The scenes soften and deepen both characters to the point where Kipp and Chris can relate to each as more than pursuer and pursuee, a point which the script maddeningly abandons soon after the tales are told. They share a genuine moment of warmth, at which point Chris piggishly tries to get Kipp out of his clothes without a change in tone to differentiate his behavior. This might be the point, that pursuing art or following your dreams—or getting older—codifies personalities and turns people into strange versions of their appetites and desires, even in the face of love. But the play spends too much time straddling the line between audacity and sincerity to present such a hopeless theme.
The main problem with Theater Boys is it doesn't go far enough to establish its own reality. I was never quite sure how seriously to take these people because the play didn't dictate the terms of the world they inhabit. This isn't to say that a show should be laid out before us like a PowerPoint presentation, but it should work to create a world with its own logic—however illogical—and its own cause and effect. What's maddening about the production is it demands to be taken seriously on its own silly terms without ever laying out what those terms might be. There is no cause and effect to transpiring events and the characters never change, so the play ends up lacking heft and importance.
Admittedly, their world is a silly one, made interesting by an enthusiastic cast, a lively score and randomly shifting events, but if the point of Theater Boys is to spend two and a half hours for Kipp to get naked, I'd like an explanation as to why that's important. Anyone?