nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 6, 2006
The trouble with The Boys, a play from Australia by Gordon Graham currently being presented by Outhouse Theatre Company, is that I never believed one minute of it. That's not to say that it doesn't exert a strong pull on its audience, a mix of grim fascination (like when you watch a fire or a traffic accident) and schadenfreude; and it's certainly acted fiercely and fearlessly by its cast of seven. But I didn't buy it: certainly I didn't find anything in it to explain why (some) men commit brutal acts of violence on (some) women, which is what it purports to be all about.
Graham's script takes place in a fairly ramshackle house in what's described as "an outer suburb of an Australian city" (a location that I'm not sure I can quite place, by the way), where Sandra Sprague, a guileless single mom reminiscent of Billie Whitelaw's character in The Krays, lives with various members of her brood. Her eldest son, Brett, has just been released from a year in prison; his girlfriend Michelle has been staying with Sandra during his incarceration. Her youngest son, Stevie, lives there too, along with Nola, a woman whom he resolutely swears is NOT his girlfriend, although she is in fact pregnant with his child. The third son, Glenn, has moved away, having come under the influence of a strong-willed lady named Jackie whose aspirations are more middle-class than anyone else in this story.
The play alternates between the day when Brett comes home from jail (seen in flashbacks) and the months that follow. The boys—that's Brett, Glenn, and Stevie; so-called by the women all the time, though only Stevie is remotely boyish in either age or outlook—have been arrested for the brutal rape, mutilation, and murder of a woman. Did they do it? Could they do it? And, if so: how?
The answer to the first question is really never in doubt; the answers to the other two questions are never satisfactorily provided, which is why The Boys is ultimately something of a failure. Brett's rage against the world feels almost pathological, while Stevie's petty meanness feels unrelievedly childish; but in neither case are we given any information about the source(s) of this pent-up anger. Sure, we can see that they've been brought up in squalor by a woman of careless temperament. But we don't know anything about their father, other than that he's been gone for a long time; we don't know about their schooling, their friends, their jobs, their hopes, dreams, or aspirations. Whatever has made the Spragues capable of the horrifying thing they apparently have done remains elusive; I actually left the play thinking they might just simply be evil. Certainly there's nothing else here to explain why these three men would snap where so many others, every day and on every corner of the globe, somehow manage to get through life without killing anybody.
Blame is assigned, superficially, to the women in their lives; nobody suffers more in the play than poor Sandra, the mother who sees her entire family destroyed, and that notwithstanding the preternatural support offered by the three (relative) strangers who, as the boys' lovers of the moment, find themselves wrapped into the drama whether they like it or not. (They do seem to like it a lot, actually, a manifestation of female masochism that feels somewhat objectionable.)
Mostly, the play is noisy and raucous and sensational; a post-Shepard indulgence in what we Americans call "Trailer Trash" ethos with lots of beer swilling, beer-can throwing, groping, swearing, yelling, and fighting. Brett and Glenn square off in a vivid wrestling match that ends with the older brother force-feeding salad dressing to the younger. And Brett and Michelle come close to stripping down and screwing more than once, even under Sandra's not-so-watchful eye. It's entertaining in its way, but it's soap opera through and through. We watch, glad we're not them. But are we learning anything about the human condition?
Nick Stevenson is scarily intense as Brett, while Jeremy Waters—though not particularly believable as a member of the same family as Stevenson—creates the most compelling onstage character as the conflicted Glenn. Their fight scene (uncredited, presumably the work of the two actors and director Craig Baldwin) is riveting. Nico Evers-Swindell has little to do as Stevie save whine and complain; ditto, more or less, Angela Ledgerwood as Nola. Kimberley Cooper and Sarah Jane-Casey bring great commitment to the roles of Jackie and Michelle, respectively. Fiana Toibin is a good 20 years too young to play Sandra, but she does her best to convey this woman whose tragedy is finally the anchor of this sad and brutal little tale.