I woke in the middle of the night after seeing Dream Boy at Celebration Theatre, realizing the play reminded me of the Stephen Sondheim song “Comedy Tonight”: something familiar – a couple of kids in the blush of first love; something peculiar – a Narrator who wanders in and out for no discernible reason; something for everyone: father-son incest, simulated sex, ghost stories, and the singing of hymns. The capper would be “comedy tonight” but the play was more of a tragedy. I think. But I’m not sure. And therein lies the problem: a talented director, a fine cast, and solid production values have been squandered on what, to me, is a perplexing and ultimately unrewarding play.
Nathan and Roy are two teenage neighbors in 1970s North Carolina. Roy helps out on the family farm, and Nathan is the new kid in town, a result of one of his father’s peripatetic career moves. Almost immediately, Roy puts the moves on the all-too-eager Nathan, and they embark on an affair which must be kept secret not only from their parents, but also from the homophobic rubes at the high school. The two boys’ excited exploration of each other’s bodies is joyous at first. But when Nathan shows a curious aptitude for sex, including advanced knowledge of tantalizing positions, it’s not, as Roy thinks, because he’s a little slut-boy, but rather because Daddy showed him how.
The first act is grimly predictable: it takes place in the South, so of course there are unattractive and bigoted crackers who thump the Bible and trumpet morality while, in fact, they’re whited sepulchers who molest little boys. The second act is livelier, as it turns into a Boy’s Own Adventure, with ghost stories told around a flickering campfire, and an extended expedition through a darkened, abandoned plantation house which might be haunted. An unwise decision by Nathan and Roy to enjoy oral sex among the ruins leads to discovery of their secret, which in turns leads to a Deliverance-style bout of forced fellatio at the hands of one of the rubes, then bloodshed. At the end, everyone mourns the dead Nathan, until he walks back into town – and then leaves with Roy, maybe heading to Chicago. I know: that last sentence doesn’t make much sense. Oh well.
As we’ve come to expect from Celebration, the acting, directing, and production values are first-rate, and director Michael Matthews has done his usual expert job at extracting perceptive performances from his actors. As the boys at the heart of the matter, Matthew Boehm (Nathan) and Randall Ray Clute (Roy) are well-cast and convincing. Mr. Clute persuasively portrays a young hayseed, used to fitting in with a girlfriend and a couple of doofus buddies, but secretly harboring shameful desires: his aw-shucks demeanor and straightforward approach to sex, coupled with his desperate “don’t tell anybody about this,” alas, mirrors real life. Mr. Boehm accurately – and heartbreakingly – conveys the turmoil of a nerdy kid whose dreams seem to be coming true: the guy on whom he has a crush actually wants to be his friend!!! OMG!!! Both actors cleverly physicalize their characters, Mr. Clute with ducking-of-the-head sincerity, and Mr. Boehm with monotone responses and almost robotic arm movements. We know these kids: some of us were these kids.
The rest of the cast is also quite good: Jim Hanna and Elizabeth Dement as Nathan’s parents, Kate Connor as Roy’s mother, Erin McIntosh as the girl who’d like to know Nathan better, and Billy Evans and Craig Jorczak as two loutish high-schoolers. Christopher Maikish as the Narrator does the best he can with a thankless role: who is the Narrator? Is he someone from the town? Someone from the dreams? Someone from Heaven (or Hell?) We don’t know, but he’s there, intermittently and annoyingly, and almost all the time without a point, commenting on the action. Instead of drawing us into the play, this Narrator distances us from it, which ain’t a good thing.
The set by Stephen Gifford is intriguing and evocative, and features a massive, askew window or picture frame – take your pick – which looks out on thick woods. Tim Swiss’s lights – and haze – add to the heavy-lidded atmosphere, and Allison Dillard’s costumes do what they need to do. While the sound is, at times, so loud it drowns out the actors, most of the time it also makes a valuable contribution to the mood.
A couple of mundane quibbles: the actors speak in a peculiar dialect, most notably marked by the pronunciation of “here” as “her.” Perhaps it’s authentic, but sometimes less is more: we often find ourselves listening to the dialect rather than the dialogue.
And in a rare misstep, Mr. Matthews has staged the scene wherein Nathan and Roy first experience physical intimacy, with both boys on the floor. A logical choice, but, given the Celebration’s seating configuration, one which forced this theatre-goer to twist and crane his head and neck in an attempt to see around the people sitting in the row in front, who in turn were twisting and craning their necks and heads in an attempt to see around the people in front of them. I fear we looked like a group of demented bobbleheads, and in the end, only those seated in the front row were able to see clearly what was going on.
The real problem here, though, is the play, which doesn’t say anything new in the first act, and falls completely apart in the second. Even Mr. Matthews and his excellent cast can’t make the last fifth or so of this play coherent. Is Nathan dead? Is he alive? If he’s alive, was he dead? Roy stayed with him a long time after he was assaulted, and presumably a farm boy should be able to tell the difference between someone who’s dead and merely unconscious. Do the lovers have a life ahead of them? Or is it all a dream? And if it’s a dream, whose dream is it? Unfortunately, by the time we get to the end, the bloodless narrative left me uninterested in the answers. And that, to me, is the greatest sin: to be moved not at all, simply cold and befuddled.
Celebration Theatre, Michael Matthews, this cast? Love it, love him, love them. This play? Hate it hate it hate it.
Written by Eric Rosen
Based on the novel by Jim Grimsley
Directed by Michael Matthews
Through March 20
Celebration Theatre @ The Lex
6760 Lexington Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Tickets: 323-957-1884 or www.celebrationtheatre.com