Every theater company, no matter how reliable, has its occasional missteps. For Keen Company, an organization which, in recent memory, has presented truly first-rate revivals of "lost" gems like Lanford Wilson's Lemon Sky, Michael Frayn's Benefactors, and the Stephen Sondheim revue Marry Me A Little, it's their revival of A.R. Gurney's 1991 drama The Old Boy, currently being presented at the Clurman Theatre on Theater Row under the direction of Keen artistic director Jonathan Silverstein, that misses the mark. Silverstein has helmed a well-intentioned but miscast production, though the play itself presents just as many problems.
The Old Boy begins with Sam (Peter Rini), a wealthy, womanizing politico gearing up for a gubernatorial run, returning to the religious New England boarding school where he spent his youth to deliver the year's commencement address. Upon arriving, Sam is informed about the recent, mysterious death of one of his old school chums, Perry Pell (Chris Dwan), an opera-lover who never quite fit in with the rest of the boys. Perry and Sam were quite close as schoolmates; Sam served as Perry's "Old Boy," a mentor to help newer students fit in.
Jumping back and forth in time from the early 1990's to the late 1960's, Gurney explores the relationship between the pair and how Sam may or may not have manipulated Perry's life so it would conform to the standards set down by Perry's wealthy WASP mother, Harriet (Laura Esterman). When Sam finds out that Perry's death was not merely "some accident," but really related to a certain global epidemic, his overwhelming guilt forces him to try and make things right.
Despite recent revisions (the extent of which I cannot speak to), Gurney's play feels awfully dusty, and it has an unfortunate tendency to bluntly overstate symbols and exposition. The characters are stock, the situations are forced, the switching between years is occasionally confusing (given that the actors play their older and younger selves), and a climactic confrontation between young Sam and young Perry is as awkward as it is clunky. Still, the play has at least one moving moment, namely the final scene where we learn just how much Sam's suddenly spontaneous commencement address meant to one of his former teachers, an Episcopal minister who never married (Tom Riis Farrell).
Silverstein's direction is as unobtrusive as it gets, letting Gurney's text speak for itself without any additional bells, whistles, or flourishes. Clocking in at 75 minutes, the production is certainly swift, and comes with stately, collegiate sets, costumes, and lighting (designed by Steven C. Kemp, Jennifer Paar, and Josh Bradford).
Unfortunately, the central cast members aren't particularly at ease with their characters. Rini is too affable for Sam, the smug politician, and his transitions to Sam's younger self aren't clear. Esterman lacks Harriet's biting and cutting edge, and is too overly coquettish as the character's younger version. Dwan, Marsha Dietlein Bennett (Sam's former girlfriend and now Perry's widow), and Cary Donaldson (Sam's campaign manager) are solid in underwritten roles. Farrell, on the other hand, hits all the right notes as Dexter, Sam's old teacher with a deeply hidden secret, and he delivers not just a well-rounded performance, but a completely satisfying one.
In the past few years we've seen truly earth-shattering revivals of two other productions that were written within a few years of Gurney's The Old Boy, The Normal Heart (2011) and Angels in America (2010). Compared to these two excellent, important dramas of American theater, The Old Boy seems practically quaint. Gurney's intentions are pure, but if only he had more to say.
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