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T.R. Knight and Robert Hogan in Boy
(Photo © James Leynse)
Is it possible for a play to be too well constructed? Julia Jordan's Boy, at Primary Stages, is an intelligent, savvy, and engaging drama that sometimes overemphasizes its themes even as it forges connections between its disparate characters.

The play is set in the Twin Cities of Minnesota over a 24-hour period. Within that time frame, the action goes backwards and forwards in time and spreads out over multiple locations. Boy concerns the lives of two men: Mick (Kelly AuCoin), a 30-something failed actor who has come home to try to re-start his life, and an unnamed young man who's listed in the program as the "Boy" of the play's title and is portrayed by T.R. Knight.

In the opening scene, Mick pays a late night visit to his former sweetheart Sarah (Miriam Shor). He's bleeding from a cut on his face, claims he has nowhere else to go, and is desperate to rekindle the flames of their former passion -- or failing that, to at least have a place to sleep for the night. There is much left unsaid between the two characters, yet the actors create such a strong and immediate rapport with each other that the play draws you in, content to savor the mystery.

The scene shifts to a psychiatrist's office, where Knight's character is being evaluated by Terry (Robert Hogan). Again, tantalizing snippets of information are revealed. The young man walks with an obvious limp, mentions four dead bodies, and claims that the psychiatrist -- who has newspaper clippings about his patient -- already knows the answers to the questions he's asking. The atmosphere is tense, the dialogue cryptic.

The next scene introduces Mick's mother, Maureen (Caitlin O'Connell), a literature teacher at a local community college. It's in this sequence, which chronologically takes place earlier in the day, that the play starts to come together. Themes, ideas, and literary allusions already mentioned in the previous two scenes are repeated and their relevance is made clear: depression is at the top of the list, with elements of storytelling -- where there is a beginning, middle, end -- coming a close second.

George Eliot's novel Mill on the Floss is repeatedly alluded to throughout the play, primarily in reference to what several characters describe as its "sucky ending" in which a flood destroys everything. However, Jordan's own writing style seems more heavily influenced by William Faulkner, whose non-traditional narrative structures and meditations on human failure are more in keeping with the concerns of Boy.

The ensemble cast, under the taut direction of Joe Calarco, is excellent. O'Connell is particularly worth singling out; an Act II confrontation between Maureen and her husband is easily the most moving scene in the play. AuCoin makes a lovable loser, the pain and confusion in his life hovering just below the surface and peeking through at moments of intense vulnerability. Knight sometimes tries a bit too hard in playing the tough-speaking, wounded Boy but ultimately endows his character with a nice blend of aggression and loneliness.

Michael Fagin's set design is rendered in neutral tones, with additional set pieces added or subtracted to shift the action from bedroom to office to classroom to a bridge and so on. Chris Lee's lighting complements these shifts, seeming overly bright in the psychiatrist's office and varying in intensity depending upon the location of the other scenes.

Since the play is constructed as a mystery of sorts, it's difficult to determine just how much should be revealed in a review. Suffice it to say that Jordan has crafted a very tight plot. By the time the two central characters meet at the top of the second act, the audience is left to wonder if the connections between them are coincidence or somehow orchestrated. That question is answered by the play's end but others remain unresolved.

Jordan drives home her themes so relentlessly that they sometimes begin to seem cumbersome, even pretentious; still, she is unquestionably a young playwright to watch out for. During the 2003-2004 season alone, she's had four professional New York productions. If Boy is indicative of her sharp, incisive writing, her willingness to play around with form, and her careful attention to character, then I can't wait to see what she does next.

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