Jay Armstrong Johnson, John Behlmann, and Gideon Glick
in Wild Animals You Should Know
(© Joan Marcus)
Jay Armstrong Johnson, John Behlmann, and Gideon Glick
in Wild Animals You Should Know
(© Joan Marcus)
A potential sex scandal within a Boy Scout troupe is the subject of Thomas Higgins' provocative yet flawed new play, Wild Animals You Should Know, presented by MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel. Director Trip Cullman has assembled a fine cast that keeps the production engaging, even when the script goes off track.

The plot centers on Matthew (Jay Armstrong Johnson), a teenaged Boy Scout who seems to have everything in his favor, and yet feels the urge to do something reckless and unpredictable. He sets his sights on his scoutmaster Rodney (John Behlmann), who Matthew discovers is gay, and determines to expose his secret.

Matthew tries unsuccessfully to enlist the help of his gay best friend Jacob (Gideon Glick), also a Boy Scout, in his plan. But inevitably, it's Matthew himself who confronts Rodney, in a powerful scene that shakes up the worlds of both man and boy.

Parallel to this story is a secondary plot line involving Matthew's father, Walter (Patrick Breen), who has recently lost his job and who accompanies the Boy Scout troupe on their ill-fated camping trip. Breen plays his part well, combining a nebbishy demeanor with a growing sense of authority as he tries to make sense of his son's behavior.

However, as interesting as Walter's journey is, the nearly exclusive concentration on it within the latter half of the play causes the work to lose steam. Furthermore, some key events are made known in clunkily expository passages, and by the time the focus of the play gets put back on Rodney and Matthew, the level of tension has dropped considerably.

Johnson nicely captures his character's dissatisfaction with his existence, as well as the uncertainty Matthew experiences when he thinks he may have pushed things a little too far. Behlmann delivers an understated performance that has a quiet power to it, particularly when Rodney feels cornered and seems ready to change the rules of the game that Matthew has established.

Glick gets some of the best lines in the play, and delivers them with comic aplomb. Yet, he also handles the more serious elements of his character well, creating an emotionally rich portrait of a gay teen who feels a combination of love, desire, anger, and envy towards his best friend.

Alice Ripley plays Matthew's mother, Marsha -- a surprisingly small role for the Tony Award-winning actress to take on. Still, she manages to make a memorable impression, mostly in a scene in which Marsha angrily confronts her husband after he returns from the camping trip. Rounding out the cast is Daniel Stewart Sherman, who does what he can as Larry, a slimly written character that seems mostly intended as the butt of a few jokes.

There is obvious potential in Higgins' writing, particularly in regards to his depiction of teenage sexuality. But while the production's final tableau is tantalizingly ambiguous, the playwright seems to shy away from tackling head on some of the complex issues he brings up.