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Theatre in Review: Boy (The Keen Company/Theatre Row)

Bobby Steggart. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Anna Ziegler's new play begins at a Halloween party in 1989. A young man named Adam stumbles into an empty room with Jenny, who is tipsy and on the make. Despite her many little ways of signaling that all systems are go, he is oddly reticent about kissing her. Instead he talks about cars, something she knows nothing about. "I think if you love something enough, you can pretty much learn it," he says. "You can teach yourself anything, I think." At this point, we have no idea just how deeply those words cut.

Before the scene can reach any sort of a climax, however, Adam crosses the stage and sits down with Dr. Wendell Barnes; it is 1973, he is a child, and, oddly, the doctor calls him Samantha. He quizzes her: Are most of her friends girls? Check. Does she play with dolls? Check. She exhibits a few obstreperous impulses, which he quickly moves to inhibit. In any case, he assures her, she is his number one interest, a remark that fills the theatre with discomfort.

What's going on here? The answer arrives when the action slips further back in time, to 1968. Trudy and Doug, new parents of twin sons, are devastated when both boys are harmed in a car accident. One of them, Samuel, is the victim of a botched operation in which he loses his penis. Barnes, a specialist in nature- vs.-nurture studies, is consulted; this is the test case he has been searching for. He recommends raising Sam as a girl, augmenting her psychological conditioning with a course of female hormones. Doug and Trudy nervously agree; after all, what could possibly go wrong?

As you can imagine, the possibilities are endless. Boy intriguingly jumps around several time frames, tracking Adam's halting pursuit of Jenny while looking back at his fraught relationship with Dr. Barnes, an eerie combination of affection and brainwashing. We also see how this elaborately constructed lie has a devastating effect on Doug and Judy's marriage, to say nothing of Adam's relationship with his parents. It's a singular dramatic proposition: At a time when society is coming around to the idea that some people are born with a profound gender dysphoria and must find a way to claim an innate sense of sexual identity, Boy constructs a scenario in which a well-intentioned man of science, convinced that there is no such thing as an intrinsic sense of self, tries to graft a female gender identity on an infant boy.

Such a plotline sidesteps the many political controversies that have sprung up around trans men and women -- you won't find a word about unisex bathrooms here. Instead, Ziegler's script is structured as an intricate collage of psychological chess moves: Despite her deep need to please Barnes, Samantha struggles with an identity that, deep down, she knows isn't really hers; Adam haltingly pursues Jenny, trying to find a way to explain that, despite numerous operations, he isn't a fully functioning sexual being. And there's the little issue of Adam's feelings for his parents; how is he ever to accept their momentous decision, which has so calamitously directed the entire course of his life?

In the course of untangling this puzzle, Boy is filled with touching and powerful moments. Barnes' enthusiasm for Milton's Paradise Lost not only sets Samantha/Adam on the road to a lifelong love of literature -- the adult Adam works as a librarian -- it also supplies a provocative insight: Of course, Barnes would admire a poem in which the real hero is Satan, who rebels against the natural order of things. Trudy dutifully reports to Barnes all the girlie activities she shares with Samantha -- then wonders why the little girl has no friends at school. In another, more amusing, scene, Barnes' attempts at getting Samantha to read Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret is a distinct failure; she prefers the Star Wars films, wanting to be like Luke Skywalker. The doctor-patient relationship takes on a faintly disturbing dimension, with Samantha taking up an extraordinary amount of space in Barnes' apparently solitary life. When their belatedly final -- and, admittedly, powerful -- confrontation takes place, it's like watching lovers breaking up.

For all its fascinating aspects, however, Boy, on its glide path to a happy-ish ending, hedges its bets in a number of ways. The biggest may be the casting of handsome, clean-cut Bobby Steggert as Adam/Samantha. It's impossible to calculate the damage that such a childhood could do, and that Adam is functional at all should be considered a miracle. As represented here, however, he is almost the standard hero of romantic fiction, the sensitive hunk with a secret. When Jenny finally finds out what is going on, her reaction is unbelievably swift and decisive; I predict months, if not years, of couple counseling in their future. Similarly, even though Doug and Trudy acted in good faith, surely Adam's feelings about them must be violently conflicted, but the fury he expresses is surprisingly mild, considering its source. And we are told virtually nothing about Barnes, who is reduced to a set of theories in a gray flannel suit. I kept waiting to learn that he was, say, a closeted gay who projected his own shame onto Samantha, but any such explanations are not forthcoming,

Under Linsay Firman's sensitive direction, however, a strong cast does get at some of the deeper emotions only hinted at in the script. Steggert's Adam is marked by a palpable longing for a normal life with a wife and children; he doesn't attempt any little-girl mannerisms as Samantha, thereby creating a persona that bridges both identities. Rebecca Rittenhouse is a charmer as Jenny, a single mother stuck in a lousy job, who never knows quite what to make of Adam. Paul Niebanck lets us feel Barnes' strange and unappeasable need for Samantha's affection; he also has an amusingly telling moment when, with Trudy out of the room, he surreptitiously straightens up her coffee table. Heidi Armbruster's Trudy is suffused with the sadness of one who knows that all the choices facing her and her child are bad. Ted Köch captures Doug's festering anger and his slide into alcoholism.

Sandra Goldmark's eccentric set design places a few arrangements of furniture around the stage -- with a few more hanging, upside down, from above; it's a striking image that alludes to the play's concern with multiple identities. Sydney Maresca's costumes don't do much to suggest different time periods, although, given the play's collage-like structure, that may have been an impossible goal. Nick Francone's lighting and Shane Rettig's original music and sound are both solid.

Boy certainly gives one plenty to think about, but in dealing with the most profound and displacing emotions that one can feel, which strike at the center of one's soul, it ends up being surprisingly placid. Could such terrible emotional scars really be resolved with a hug and kiss? -- David Barbour

(15 March 2016)

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