All the Fine Boys
Abigail Breslin plays a South Carolina Lolita in this new play by Erica Schmidt.
People move to the suburbs to be safe: safe from the crime and depravity of the fabled inner cities; safe to raise children in an environment that will preserve their innocence, at least until they reach legal adulthood. Accordingly, the set of All the Fine Boys, writer-director Erica Schmidt's shocking tale of adolescence in the suburbs, is covered in thick blue carpet, the kind you might see in the finished basement of a McMansion. It's not just on the floor, but everywhere, padding the walls and windowsills to create what looks like a danger-free environment in which to experience one's sexual awakening — but bad things obviously still happen.
"Obviously" because we are seeing a drama at the New Group (a theater decidedly unafraid of the dark), but also because Schmidt's contrivance leaves little doubt as to where we are headed. Luckily, she is skilled enough as a director to build ample tension in a play mostly lacking suspense. The result is an engrossing bit of sensationalism, the kind to be paired with box wine and fistfuls of popcorn.
It's the late 1980s: Jenny (Abagail Breslin) and Emily (Isabelle Fuhrman) are 14-year-old besties living in suburban South Carolina. They have slumber parties where they eat junk food, watch horror movies, and talk about boys. Emily is interested in Adam (Alex Wolff), a high school senior she met in rehearsals for the school play (Emily is the kind of advanced student who is allowed to participate in high school theater when she is still in middle school). Jenny has a crush on Joseph (Joe Tippett), a 28-year-old nuclear technician who attends her church. One day, she decides to get into his car and take a ride back to his place. "I think I know what's going to happen with us," she purrs to the older man as she leans forward on his couch and tries to look seductive. Unfortunately, we think we do, too.
Besides being completely illegal, Jenny and Joe's relationship is dysfunctional from the outset: She asks him for Twizzlers and new clothes. He chastises her for smoking and shoplifting. "Girls shouldn't do those things," he says to her sternly. Adults shouldn't sleep with teenagers, but here we are.
At least this stellar cast is able to turn their broadly drawn characters into real human beings. Hyperventilating while wearing a woefully bad poker face, Fuhrman conveys the giddy excitement of cavorting with the older kids when you've outgrown your peers. Armed with an acoustic guitar and a smug grin, Wolff is the alpha male of the high school drama club, the one that was irresistible at 16, but about whom you have a good laugh when you look back.
Breslin plays an entirely different type: Her smoker's rasp suggests that Jenny is one of the cool girls cutting class for a pack of Virginia Slims. And really, who wouldn't lust after Joe Tippett? Breslin and Tippett give uninhibited physical performances, choreographed in excruciatingly awkward detail by Lorenzo Pisoni. It's the kind of realism bound to make you lean forward in your seat and put your hand on your cheek, especially when it turns violent.
While the performances are ultra-real, Amy Rubin's set adds an element of magic, conjuring the atmosphere of a suburban home with the aforementioned carpet walls. An ever-changing room behind a slatted door uses technical wizardry to create distinct locations, even if they all look basically the same. Jeff Croiter's lighting modulates the time and weather, allowing for some intimate and unsettling rainstorm scenes. Sound designer Bart Fasbender has created an authentic soundscape of birds and cars. The occasional school bus squeaks around a corner outside, reminding us of where Jenny ought to be when she is playing hooky with Joe.
A late reflective monologue makes it clear that Schmidt doesn't want this to be a morality fable, but her Goofus and Gallant presentation of Jenny and Emily's divergent paths invites such interpretation. Her script touches on issues of consent, the unequal expectations placed on girls to be both pretty and chaste, and the inevitable disappointment of adulthood. Unfortunately, her treatment of these subjects feels as nourishing as the Pringles Jenny stuffs in her mouth throughout the show. While it's fun and tasty, you know you'll be hungry again in an hour.