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The Dear Boy

Dan O'Brien's uninvolving drama about an unhappy English teacher shows the playwright still has a lot to learn. logo
Daniel Geroll and Dan McCabe
in The Dear Boy
(Photo © Richard Termine)
So if there's a gun on the table in the first act -- okay, in the first 15 minutes of an 80-minute play -- will it go off before the end? That famed Chekhovian question may indeed occupy your mind during some of the sloggier passages of Dan O'Brien's The Dear Boy, even if you're not particularly concerned with whom the pistol will be aimed at.

That's primarily the fault of the playwright, who has created a quartet of interesting lost souls -- part of the mass of men (and women) who lead lives of quiet desperation, to paraphrase Thoreau -- and placed them in this rather preposterous and surprisingly uninvolving drama. But a fair share of blame lies at the feet of director Michael John Garcés, who has made misstep after misstep in the production, robbing The Dear Boy of whatever impact it might have made.

Indeed, there's trouble from the get-go as the show's protagonist, James Flanagan (Daniel Gerroll), an English teacher at Scarsdale High School, delivers a rather blistering monologue critiquing a student's short story. Dressed in brown suit and tie, speaking in a combination English and Irish accent (even though, as we eventually learn, he's from the Bronx), Flanagan is the latest in long line of starchy English teachers found in plays who will not be quite as buttoned-up as their wardrobes initially suggest.

As we soon discover, when the lighting shifts on Wilson Chin's excellent re-creation of Flanagan's book-lined office, this has been an imagined monologue; one that Flanagan would never actually utter, but meant to give the audience a clue into his inner fire. But it immediately throws the play off-balance, since you realize quickly enough that if Flanagan is capable of that kind of passion, then anything can happen in the course of the next 24 hours. (And yet, so little really does!)

The object of Flanagan's scorn -- the "dear boy" of the title -- is Jimmy Doyle (Dan McCabe), a troubled, gangly senior whose story "Saint James" is clearly modeled on Flanagan, even borrowing a particularly sensitive piece of biographical information the teacher has shared with his students. Doyle's writing skills aside, "Saint James" is clearly a rather inflammatory and deeply disturbing work: The story's protagonist wants to kill his teacher (named Flyswatter). Is that why Jimmy has a gun in his backpack?

All too soon, what might have been a fairly effective two-character drama expands -- and the core relationship between Flanagan and Doyle, kindred souls underneath the surface, is mostly forgotten. Instead, the next scene takes place at a Manhattan bar where the school's faculty is having its Christmas party. (Since the scenery cannot change, we must make do with Sunil Rajan's clever sound design to make the transition. It helps, but it doesn't really solve the problem. And are there no bars in Scarsdale??) While there, Flanagan interacts with two fellow teachers, Richard Purdy (T. Scott Cunningham), a rather flamboyant and inebriated homosexual who desperately wants to succeed Flanagan as chair of the English department, and Elise Sanger (Susan Pourfar), a novice teacher with a taste for strong cocktails and weak men, who decides (for reasons later explained more fully) to take Flanagan home with her. It is these encounters, O'Brien posits, that changes Flanagan's outlook on life and the outcome of his impromptu meeting the next morning with Doyle.

All of this might be a tad more resonant if Gerroll wasn't quite so vital from the outset; his demeanor undercuts the character's supposed transformation. And even his gray beard can't fully disguise the reality that Gerroll is about a decade younger than his character, who should probably appear older than he actually is. The actor scores fairly often, especially in a key scene with Elise, but it's ultimately less than ideal casting.

That's not true of McCabe, who is so affecting in overcoming the character's built-in clichés that we're delighted to see him finally return in the final scene. Cunningham, one of the stage's most consistent performers, is also once again on the mark, though once or twice he comes skittishly close to overdoing Richard's southern gay drunk. (O'Brien, to his credit, acknowledges this stereotyping by having the character say about himself: "Somebody could do something besides get drunk and impersonate Truman Capote"). And while I found Pourfar a little more believable last month on this same stage as the commitment-phobic lesbian in Swimming in the Shallows than as this suburban femme fatale, this quirky, endearing actress is still a welcome presence on stage.

Dan O'Brien has a lot to learn from Chekhov -- and it's not just about the use of firearms. But The Dear Boy is not without promise, and hopefully, he'll find the proper teacher.

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