Tim Rock and Stephen Louis Grush in Good Boys and True
(© Michael Brosilow)
Tim Rock and Stephen Louis Grush in Good Boys and True
(© Michael Brosilow)
In Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's Good Boys and True, now making its world premiere at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the playwright eschews the comic book fantasy of some of his previous work to create an entirely naturalistic world. The result is a solidly efficient and taut drama that works smoothly and quietly. Its vocabulary never sounds exceptional or poetic, and it divulges its secrets carefully, yet it hooks you and slowly reels you in.

As the show begins, a graphic and exploitive sex tape has rocked St. Joseph's, an exclusive East Coast Catholic boys' prep school. Top student and star jock Brandon Hardy (Stephen Louis Grush, who is riveting, although too small to pass as a football and basketball star) is implicated as the boy assaulting a local young woman, although his face isn't clearly seen. Brandon denies his participation to his mother, Elizabeth (the elegant Martha Lavey), a local doctor, as well as to his fellow student and secret lover, Justin (Tim Rock, who deftly handles the play's comic material). Act I answers the question of Brandon's involvement, while Act II investigates the "why," largely through the sleuthing of Brandon's engaged but coolly-distant mother.

Still, it's somewhat obscure what Good Boys and True is really about, as Aguirre-Sacasa softly but repeatedly shifts focus from the shocked and questioning mother, to the relationship of Brandon and Justin, to the larger social world of a privileged and protective prep school that may cause Brandon to believe his own self-victimization is necessary. For Justin is out, while Brandon is closeted due to his jock status and his own interpretation of what is expected of him. He even has a never-seen girlfriend with whom he may be sexually active, although he and Justin plan to attend Dartmouth together as a couple.

Late revelations also make Brandon's never-seen father an important character, who fulfills the biblical injunction about sins of the father being visited upon the sons. Indeed, revealing an incident involving the father years earlier may be one secret too many as it doesn't really effect the play's outcome, and suggests that the father may need to be seen onstage.

As directed by Pam MacKinnon, Good Boys and True is understated in the extreme. All the dialogue is conversational with few emotional highs and little range in vocal dynamics. But even a highly naturalistic work has some peaks and valleys and certainly needs them in presentation. Moments of dazzle and emotional intensity (whether loud or soft) are decidedly lacking in the production, although the more-than-competent cast (including John Procaccino as the school athletic director with motives of his own) grasps the characters well.

MacKinnon also restricts physical contact between the characters to little more than an occasional pat on the arm. The lovers scarcely touch each other even in private moments and Brandon and his mother never touch or hug until the second-to-last scene, despite several compelling moments when they could and should. This choice calls attention to itself as curious rather than effective, and further undercuts the play.