Mary Beth Fisherin Boy Gets Girl(Photo: Liz Lauren)
Mary Beth Fisher
in Boy Gets Girl
(Photo: Liz Lauren)
The "issue play" is alive and well in today's theater, thanks to Rebecca Gilman. The playwright deservedly gained attention for Spinning Into Butter, an ambitious work that dealt with racism in a fresh and purposefully disturbing manner. Now, in Boy Gets Girl at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I, Gilman looks at the pernicious, potentially dangerous ways in which men and women see (or don't see) each other. This is a thoughtful, provocative piece that makes for exceptional theater.

As the play begins, you'd swear you were watching a cute, romantic comedy set among New York's yuppie sophisticates. A smart journalist named Theresa meets a clean-cut young man named Tony at an outdoor café on a blind date. Set up by a mutual friend, they spar cautiously to see if they have anything in common. Awkward attempts at conversation lead to laughter in the audience. We've been there; we feel safe watching this interplay; we know the genre. It's boy meets girl, loses girl, gets girl. We settle in for a good time because the dialogue snaps, crackles, and pops.

Yet, underneath Tony's innocent charm, there is something disturbing. Attentiveness turns to obsession, and Theresa soon finds herself stalked by Tony. If this is starting to sound like a sexual thriller, we hasten to say that it is not; Boy Gets Girl cloaks its agenda. After all, the best issue plays are those that shroud their polemic in a good yarn. Skirting the edges of romantic comedy and melodrama, Gilman here examines a cross-section of American men and their range of attitudes about women. We have the liberal, well-meaning, male co-worker who actually took a women's studies course in school; the paternalistic boss in the Lou Grant mold; the slyly comic, Russ Meyer-like pornographer; and, on the farthest edge of the continuum, Tony, the sexual predator.

As Tony's attraction to Theresa turns malignant, Theresa's co-worker Mercer eloquently describes what's wrong with this picture. He points out to the boss that, in movies, we root for the guy who pursues a girl against all odds. She rejects him, but he won't give up; he does everything imaginable to win her love and, ultimately, he gets the girl! But Tony is not getting the girl, and the fact that the formula isn't working drives him into a murderous frenzy.

Gilman's approach to this story is strikingly similar to her construction of Spinning Into Butter. Both plays revolve around a bright, introspective loner female, and both are set where the heroine works. Emotionally isolated, Gilman's heroines try mightily to find their own unique spots in the world, conscious of their personal gifts as well as their self-perceived flaws. These women can see and articulate the flaws in others, often with sharp humor. Gilman creates crises built around fundamental social issues, then surrounds her protagonists with characters who represent a cross section of attitudes.

Mary Beth Fisher and Ian Lithgowin Boy Gets Girl(Photo:  Liz Lauren)
Mary Beth Fisher and Ian Lithgow
in Boy Gets Girl
(Photo: Liz Lauren)
The danger of writing a play with a social agenda is that the characters will fall away and the issues will overwhelm the storytelling. The best way to avoid that pitfall (besides great writing) is to cast your play with actors who can infuse their characters with real personality. Under the recreated direction of the late Michael Maggio, who helmed this production at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, Boy Gets Girl is wonderfully cast. (These are the same actors seen at the Goodman.) Mary Beth Fisher gives an award-worthy performance as Theresa, running the gamut of emotions from tough to terrorized. Howard Witt takes what could have been the play's most obvious character and turns him into a wily, winning old pornographer, as personally charming as he is professionally dangerous. In the office, Shayna Ferm is dead-on perfect as an airhead secretary, David Adkins is effectively Alan Alda-like as Mercer, and Matt DeCaro gives a warm and amusing performance as the boss. Madeline Beck is right on target as the cop on the case. And, as Tony, Ian Lithgow never tips his hand too soon; he doesn't play the villain, he plays a lonely man who doesn't know when to quit.

The sets, built on a turntable by Michael Philippi, are impressive in both detail and scope. Nan Cibula-Jenkins' costume designs help to establish the characters. Michael Maggio's direction is tight, unyielding, and full of compassion. (The MTC production was supervised by Lynne Meadow.) To sum up: Boy Gets Girl, Audience Gets Tickets.