Good Boys and True
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 16, 2008
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's new play Good Boys and True has a compelling story to tell, a well-developed moral center, and enormous conviction. For all of this it is to be greatly admired. The questions it raises about our responsibilities to one another are fundamental and demand exploration.
The time is the fall of 1988, the place is an affluent Washington, D.C. suburb where the Hardy family resides. The father, Michael (whom we never see during the play) is a prominent doctor and do-gooder; he's currently in a "flying hospital" bringing medical care to the needy in Ecuador. The mother, Elizabeth, is a surgeon and also the protagonist of the play. Their only son, Brandon, is 17, a senior at St. Joseph's Preparatory School for Boys. Brandon is handsome, smart, athletic, and on the fast track to an Ivy League college (specifically, Dartmouth) and an apparently limitless future.
It is worth mentioning that Michael attended both St. Joseph's and Dartmouth himself.
The riveting plot of Good Boys and True begins when Russell Shea, Brandon's coach at school and a lifelong friend of the Hardys, brings Elizabeth in for an interview at his office. A videotape has been found, he tells her, that shows a young man having sex with a young woman. "How graphic?" she asks. He replies: "Whatever you're imagining....That times three."
The face of the boy on the tape is obscured, but the rest of the boy's body looks like Brandon's.
Aguirre-Sacasa skillfully lays this all out in a single scene that lasts perhaps five minutes. The rest of the play convulses from this bombshell. Some of what happens is relatively easy to guess (starting with Brandon's vehement and reasonably convincing denial that it is indeed him on this tape). The situation quickly escalates into a scandal and then explodes into a catastrophe, at least for those closely involved. The playwright shrewdly focuses on only a few people affected by it: Brandon and his mom, her sister Maddy (who is a teacher at a public high school nearby), his best friend Justin (whose sexuality and whose feelings for Brandon are a source of enormous worry for Brandon). Late in the play, we also meet Cheryl, the young woman on the tape, who is at once the clearest victim of this arrogant prank and the clearest-eyed of its survivors. Aguirre-Sacasa has written all of these characters beautifully and authentically, but Cheryl rings truest of all.
To disclose more would do a disservice both to the terrific suspense that the playwright builds here and to the arc that we travel vicariously with Elizabeth as she uncovers more and more of the truth of what transpired. I was surprised that she, and not her son, is the one who takes the most meaningful journey in Good Boys and True; the place she ends up is a place she knows she should always have been, one of honestly and completely owning every action and every omission in a life that privilege has made too easy and careless.
The ending of the play is unfortunately unsatisfying; it feels like Aguirre-Sacasa cut part or all of a scene that would give the piece the closure it needs. But the themes and morals of Good Boys and True are clearly communicated, notwithstanding.
J. Smith-Cameron gives a sterling performance as Elizabeth, a mother who is determined to do the best for her son, even after she come to understand how difficult that may prove to be. Kellie Overbey is intelligent and compassionate as her sister, Maddy. The young actors who portray Brandon and Justin—respectively, Brian J. Smith and Christopher Abbott—are entirely believable as 17-year-old boys while conveying the more adult emotions that the play's events wring out of them. Lee Tergesen is stuck with the drama's one unconvincing role, Coach Shea. But Betty Gilpin delivers a knockout performance of grace and intensity as Cheryl.
I'm not sure that Scott Ellis's production of Good Boys and True serves the play as well as it might. An enormous, overripe backdrop (sets are by Derek McLane) depicting rows and rows of athletic trophies frames all the scenes—it's a distraction from the large but intimate scope of the play. Other design elements work better, but overall Ellis's pacing feels a bit sluggish, with his handling particularly of the scenes involving the two boys coming across as too ginger for a story of such potency.
But despite these issues, the play is a triumph, perhaps one rewrite and one presentation away from something approaching perfection. See it now anyway: this is powerful, vivid, provocative theatre—the kind of intelligent drama that we see all too rarely on the larger stages of New York; the kind that really does have the ability to touch its audience in a raw, personal way; the kind that can foster re-examination of motives and prerogatives that don't generally get brought out for inspection. And that makes it a play to cherish.