Retro Productions is an exceptionally talented theatre company dedicated to the presentation of “good theatrical stories that have an historical perspective - with an emphasis on the 20th century.” Since 2005, it has staged eighteen full length plays to considerable acclaim, including terrific revivals of Michael Frayn’s Benefactors in 2010 and George S. Kaufman’s The Butter and Egg Man earlier this year. Now in its eleventh season it is reviving Good Boys and True by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa at the Gene Frankel Theatre on Bond Street in lower Manhattan, an excellent production that can only further enhance Retro’s well-earned reputation.
Good Boys and True had its world premiere at The Steppenwolf Theatre in 2007 and its New York premiere at the Second Stage Theater the following year. Moreover, the tale it tells, centering on the ramifications of the discovery and dissemination of a sexually explicit video tape, takes place in 1988, a generation earlier. And yet this revival does not come across as dated at all. Indeed, although the internet and sexting may have supplanted videotaping in today’s world, the play’s message is as salient today as it ever was.
Brandon Hardy (Ryan Pater) is an upper class upperclassman - a handsome, popular, intelligent senior at the prestigious and elite St. Joseph’s Preparatory School for Boys located in a suburb of Washington, D.C. He is the son of two medical doctors, he is the captain of his school’s football team, and he has just been accepted to Dartmouth. In sum, he would appear to have it all – until Coach Russell Shea (C. K. Allen) discovers a sex tape in which the male protagonist bears a striking resemblance to Brandon. The female protagonist appears to be a working class girl from one of the public schools in the area, clearly not one of the upper class girls from one of St. Joseph’s sister schools. To put the best light on it, the boy on the tape may have been exploiting, objectifying and using the girl for nothing but his own gratification; at worst, the tape might have been depicting rape.
Coach Shea, a friend of Brandon’s family (he was one of Brandon’s father’s classmates and teammates at St. Joseph’s a generation earlier), is as concerned (or even more so) over his school’s reputation and the potential consequences of the tape’s dissemination for Brandon and his parents as he is about the welfare of the girl or the implications of the tape’s having been made in the first place. To that end, he enlists the aid of Brandon’s mother. Elizabeth Hardy (Heather E. Cunningham), entrusting her with the tape so that she might view it for herself, confront her son, and determine whether or not he actually is the boy on the tape. Only then would they determine what action to take.
Spoiler Alert: Brandon does turn out to have been the boy on the tape and the girl, Cheryl Moody (Rebecca Gray Davis) was a working class public school girl he picked up at the mall. The tape ends up being broadly disseminated (you really never can put the genie back in the bottle) and the repercussions for all concerned are considerable.
But that’s the easy part. The mystery of who did what is relatively simple to determine but the question of why such things happen at all is much more difficult. And it is the attempt to understand the “why,” not the “what,” that makes this such an interesting play.
The actual motivations that inform our actions often are unknown – even to ourselves. As it turns out, Brandon’s closest friend at St. Joseph’s is Justin Simmons (Stephan Amenta) who has also applied to Dartmouth; in fact, the two intend to room together in college. But Justin is not only gay and out of the closet but also services Brandon orally from time to time. So was Brandon’s behavior as depicted on the sex tape an attempt to repress his own homosexual inclinations? Did he make the tape and connive to have it discovered in order to affirm his own heterosexuality?
Cheryl admits to being more than suspicious when Brandon brought her to his friend’s empty house for their sexual romp and she is seen smiling on the tape at its inception. So was she complicit in the entire affair or is it impermissible to even consider such a thing since to do so would constitute “blaming the victim”?
In the course of the play, we learn of Elizabeth’s own questionable behavior a generation earlier (as well as that of Coach Shea and of Brandon’s own father) when they were no older than Brandon is today. Are they guilty of providing Brandon with a sense of entitlement and creating an environment in which such behavior would not only be acceptable but could flourish?
Is Brandon just a normal decent adolescent whose hormones ran rampant on one fateful day? Or is he a basically bad kid with slightly sadistic tendencies who just didn’t think the rules applied to him?
In a program note, Heather Cunningham, the Retro’s Producing Artistic Director (who also plays the part of Elizabeth Hardy) understandably and quite justifiably focuses her attention on the play’s most overt message:
Rape culture and negative attitudes toward women are pervasive in our society. It’s in how we address each other every day. Slut shaming is nothing new – it’s been around since the 50’s and beyond. “She’s easy” or “She’s a tease” have simply been replaced by “She’s a slut” and “She’s a whore.” Making “those women” somehow “less than”. Not important. Not worthy of respect.
So I ask you…and myself…what are we going to do to change it?
Yes, we must change it. But before we can change it, we really have to understand it and we don’t seem to have even reached that point yet. Which really is what this play is all about.