This is a middling play — if you see it you’re not sorry but you don’t need to see it. Gurney is very talented at engaging the viewer with recognizable character types involved in contemporary topics. The Old Boy was first produced in 1991.
Sam, a slick but decent politician running for Governor returns, in the 1990’s, to his New England prep school to dedicate a building to a man, now deceased, whom he once knew as a student, Perry. He’d been Perry’s “old boy”, his assigned friend and mentor, back in the 1960’s, and the two had genuinely bonded. Perry’s mother, Harriet, is there for the ceremony, donating the building in her son’s honor, along with Alison, Perry’s former wife. Perry, Sam learns, has died in vague circumstances.
What could those circumstances be? It doesn’t take long to see where Gurney’s going. As the play moves between the here and now of the 1990’s to back when the boys were at school together in the ’60’s, we quickly catch on, via flashbacks, that Perry was gay, though not “out,” not even to himself. Back then Sam, the extroverted jock, and Perry, the introverted bookish opera lover, had developed a close “opposites attract” friendship, with an erotic undertone, obvious from Perry, but also from Sam, it’s suggested, a reminder of the ambiguities of sexuality. They were such buddies that Sam, burdened with an attractive but low class girlfriend, Alison, had killed two birds with one stone, ridding himself of a nuisance in Alison and resolving his unease about Perry’s homosexuality, by arranging for Perry and Alison to marry, bringing about their constrained marriage in which, for a long time, Perry lived a lie.
The suspense now, in the 1990’s, shifts to: what will Sam say at the dedication speech in honor of his friend, with his friend’s mother on hand nervously listening? Will he maintain the platitudes that will be useful for his election as Governor, as his gung ho aide urges him to do? Or will he courageously transcend political considerations and speak the “truth” about the way individuals and society conspire to constrain disapproved passions and desires?
Up at the podium, Sam presents his speech to his audience — us — and Gurney is right in saying on his web site that the under-dramatized presentation of the speech is a weakness of the play. That’s not the worst problem with the speech, though. Sam’s speech assigns blame for Perry’s death in a way that doesn’t make sense. The fact that this way of seeing blame springs from the kindness and well meaning heart of the playwright doesn’t paper over a real disconnect between the argument in the play and rationality. It’s too much of a stretch, and evaporates the play’s plausibility.
Some of the characters, particularly Sam as the sure-of himself-politician and Bud, his fast talking aide, are stereotypes. Others are more fully drawn. Chris Dwan gives an arresting performance as the adolescent Perry, gradually coming to know himself, sensitive, unsure but with a backbone. Marsha Dietlein Bennet is effective in a fascinating role: she morphs from the low class girl who first went off with Sam because she wanted to know where all those boys on vacation came from to a widow of an upper class man struggling to free herself from her overbearing mother-in-law.
Tom Riis Farrell brings humor and touching emotion to the predictable role of the Minister, Dexter, who was short listed for Headmaster but didn’t get the job “because I wasn’t married.” We understand, Dexter (actually, devoted as he is to the school, he doesn’t have the style of a prep school Headmaster). The actor among all, who’s so good she makes one absolutely forget that she’s a “character” or that we’re watching a play is Laura Esterman as Perry’s dominating — and heartbroken — mother.
The Old Boy plays at the Clurman Theatre, Theatre Row on West 42nd Street in Manhattan through March 30th.