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Robert Sella, Malcolm Gets, Carrie Preston, and Nadia Dajani
in Boys and Girls
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Tom Donaghy writes punchy domestic dramas distinguished by elliptical dialogue that shrewdly reflects the ways in which anxiety-fueled men and women communicate or, more often, fail to communicate. With plays like Minutes From the Blue Route and The Beginning of August, he's been hailed for noticing the ways that people skirt what they mean to say, easing around what they actually think and feel. Donaghy hears people in contemporary relationships going at one another in half sentences or using phrases where logical thoughts are conflated--but, underneath, far more substantial emotions are simmering.

As a result, Donaghy's plays make audiences think "that's how people really talk"--the same reaction prompted by the work of Paddy Chayefsky and David Mamet. And it's true that Donaghy very often nails the ambivalence with which brittle but vulnerable cosmopolitans chat. He certainly does so in his new play, Boys and Girls, in which a character can answer a question (sort of) by murmuring, "No. Yes, I do. No." Or in which two characters can have the following, altogether convincing exchange:

JASON: What if we had dinner later?
REED: I don't--
JASON: Yeah.
REED: Yeah, I don't know. I've got to be cracking early tomorrow, get going.
JASON: You're right.
REED: Maybe if we weren't--
JASON: Right.
REED: --hadn't planned this--
JASON: Dinner is so huge!
REED: It is!

Yes, Donaghy has what is often called a great ear and he puts it to impressive use in Boys and Girls, as he has done in his other reputation-building works. But along with reflecting so accurately how oblique and amusing people can be when they blather, Donaghy has a concomitant problem--a couple of problems really. Ticket buyers are repeatedly jolted out of the moments of a play to contemplate not the truth of the action but the expertise with which the author's garrulous urban figures have been recorded; in time, authenticity becomes its own stylization. And, carried away with his gift, Donaghy too frequently forgets to acknowledge that there are times when the average Joe and Jane do talk in sentences that have beginnings, middles, and ends, and in paragraphs rife with logical thought. Such precious moments occur in Boys and Girls only when the characters are angry, when they've been pushed to the white walls supplied by set designer Douglas Steiner. No one, that is to say, has anything approaching a prolonged, quietly lucid utterance.

Perhaps because Donaghy counts on his skill at writing dialogue to see him through, he runs into an even bigger problem in Boys and Girls. The play follows a couple of years in the lives of two gay ex-lovers, Jason (Malcolm Gets) and Reed (Robert Sella), and two partnered lesbians, Shelly (Carrie Preston) and Bev (Nadia Dajani). The halting, staccato conversations in which these four indulge themselves revolve around whether Jason and Reed will resume their interrupted affair and possibly adopt a child; and, as to Shelly and Bev, whether or not they will keep their affair going and, if they do, how they can they find a father figure for Georgie, the son to whom Bev gave birth. Reed on his own is Bev's and Shelly's candidate; Reed reunited with Jason, who acknowledges his alcoholism, is unappealing to Shelly.

Girl talk: Dajani and Preston
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
There's nothing objectionable in taking up the downside of a very modern situation and wondering whether same-sex couples who still behave childishly (note the title) are safe bets to raise children. But because Donaghy is so focused on the language of make-up and breakup and wounding thrusts and parries, he runs out of play. That Shelly and Bev ask Reed to move into their commodious digs--without any explanation of why he'd leave his own home to do so--stretches credulity, and Donaghy's harping on the on-again/off-again nature of these relationships quickly loses interest.

By the second half of Boys and Girls, Donaghy has set a pattern that undermines his four labile protagonists: for them, staying together or not staying together somehow seems about the same. Worse, as they shuttle from the bar to Reed's bedroom to Shelly and Bev's duplex to the beach and back, they become a quartet of cranks. Reed behaves like a spoiled child trying to rule the sandbox; Shelly is petty; Jason's sobriety is suspect; Bev is tiresome. When Bev finally queries Reed about the outcome of their game of musical abodes, it seems a stale question. The audience could care less.

None of the loss of interest, though, can be placed at director Gerald Gutierrez's feet. Throughout the play, Gutierrez catches the nuances of people touching or avoiding touch. The cast, meanwhile, can be congratulated simply for committing Donaghy's devilishly strung words to memory. Having accomplished that daunting task, they make the folk they're representing palpably real; admittedly, the range of emotions is limited, but they're all expert within those limits. There are a couple of love scenes into which they throw themselves wholeheartedly. Gets does run into trouble when has to deliver a long-winded, drunk-and-miserable tirade, but his work as part of the ensemble is aces.

In terms of scenery and props, there is little on stage other than those bare white walls and a spiral staircase that signals "duplex." When necessary, there's a long-stemmed bar table or bed or sofa. That's it, and the virtually empty stage underlines the barrenness of the lives Donaghy is transcribing. Catherine Zuber shopped for the appropriately nondescript, everyday-casual clothes, and David Weiner lights everything well. The sound design, credited to Aural Fixation, includes a chirpy version of the Beatles' "All You Need is Love" as the play gets underway. It's meant ironically, of course, because Donaghy believes that something more than love is needed. He just hasn't explained well enough what that might be.

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