Penny Jackson's new play I Know What Boys Want is concise, dense, harrowing, and as timely and topical as whatever is trending on Bing or Twitter or Google right now. In it, a high school student named Vicky Walker finds herself in the center of an enormous firestorm after a sex video featuring her and her boyfriend, Roger, hits the Internet. Vicky was drunk and possibly drugged when the video was made, and she certainly did not give permission to her boyfriend's buddy Oliver to tape it. For Oliver it's a goof: a chance to get back at Roger for a less toxic prank and a play for manipulation of Vicky, on whom he has long had a crush. But for Vicky, it's devastating: stuff on the Internet doesn't ever really go away, as various characters in this play keep reminding her. What will become of this young woman?
Jackson doesn't shy away from any of the myriad issues that surround her ripped-from-the-headlines plot. In a dozen taut, provocative scenes, she considers the Pandora's Box that the Internet has proved itself to be; the differences in views on feminism and female empowerment between Vicky's generation and her mother's; the blight of single-parent (or more accurately, almost-no-parent) families that seems to span all classes and groups in contemporary American society; bullying as both a generalized and very specific phenomenon; teenage sexuality and drug use. The fact that Jackson spent most of her adult career teaching in private schools helps us understand how authentic all of this is. She's very concerned about what she sees happening to the rising generation in this country, and I Know What Boys Want (along with her earlier play Safe) is explicitly designed to begin conversations about the various issues I just mentioned.
Fortunately, Jackson is a skilled dramatist, so this play never feels polemical or exploitative; she uses the intimacy and freedom that the indie theater ethos provides to deal frankly and incisively with these subjects that so concern her. The work is staged expertly by director Joan Kane, who also produced it with her company Ego Actus (her co-producer is Bruce A! Kraemer, who also designed lighting; I profiled Ego Actus recently here). The staging is economical, spare, and very involving, with a simple stationery set by Starlet Jacobs that uses a bed, a desk, and a multitude of computers and cellphones to represent the rooms of all the teenagers in the story, and evocative sound designed by Ian Wehrle. The cast is uniformly excellent, with Sara Hogrefe anchoring the piece formidably as Vicky. Nick Vennekotter and Liam Rhodes are convincingly adolescent as Oliver and Roger, respectively; they give us a sense of rudderless, very immature kids who lack both the experience and the guidance to comprehend the harm they're doing to others and themselves. Teddy Lytle and Lauren D. Salvo provide splendid contrast as a pair of misfit new arrivals at Vicky's high school, while Janice Amano and Kimberly Diamond are spot-on as two of Vicky's friends. Dara O'Brien rounds out the ensemble in the only adult role, as Vicky's mom.
I moderated a talkback with the artists and the audience following the performance I saw, so I can say without equivocation that this is a piece that stimulates lots of discussion. I admire Jackson and Ego Actus greatly for choosing to bring something this pertinent to the stage, and hope that audiences keep filling the houses and that producers all over the country give the work a hearing in their towns and cities. I love the way that Jackson has neither sought for easy answers or gone down familiar paths in I Know What Boys Want: expect to be surprised and jolted by what happens here. And then talk to your friends and family about it.