Good Boys

Also: Requiem for a Heavyweight, Aunt Dan and Lemon.

Good Boys

ACT Theatre; ends Sun., Oct. 23

Jane Martin likes to upset you but doesn't want you to be too uncomfortable. In this 70-minute chamber drama from the pseudonymous playwright, an African-American dad confronts the father of the white teenager who murdered the black man's son in a suicidal killing spree at a high school. If you're wondering how Martin can possibly juggle so many visceral concerns in 70 minutes, you're wondering the right thing. Like Keely and Du, Martin's gripping but finally underfed discussion of abortion, Good Boys is a hot-button topic piece that pretends to be complex but is really a bit of a cheat, making an unappetizing issue as digestible as possible.

You'll leave the night knowing exactly how you feel about everything, because Martin starts to spell it out for you from the moment we meet the murderer. Ethan (Michael Scott) is pierced and petulant, and when his father, James (Jeffrey Hayenga), finds a homemade pipe bomb in the boy's possession, the kid whines, "It was on the Internet, OK? You were out of town!" So, yeah, it's like that; you can forget about delicate shadings on the way to Columbine. Boy: pierced. Internet: bad. Father: inattentive. Ka-boom.

The simple setup could be cunning if Martin threw a wrench in it somewhere and did something more unsettling than list reasons to finger James as a Bad Dad. Nope. Parents, you have nothing to worry about. When Thomas (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) follows James to the park years later and demands the man ask for forgiveness in church for the death of Thomas' son Marcus (Dennis Mosley), the playwright wastes little time absolving you of James' guilty grief—as long as you fully appreciate junior's SAT scores and don't take him to target practice with the gun you bought him, you're good to go. The play's would-be punch comes with kid gloves; by the end of the hour, even James is willing to take full responsibility.

I can't say that what little there is here to contemplate isn't staged to reasonably good effect by director Jon Jory (long rumored to be Jane Martin). The evening moves without missing a beat. Though neither Scott nor Mosley makes a terrifically believable high-school homeboy—and both are saddled with Martin's, and costumer Marcia Dixcy Jory's, overstatements—they're smart performers and give fight choreographer Geoffrey Alm's earnest tussles everything they've got. Byrd could do better building the slow burn director Jory has allowed him, but his loose-limbed unrest is authentic, and Hayenga, with fiery eyes and a powder- keg emotiveness, seems authentically frazzled in complement.

Everybody looks a little less convincing, however, once Adam Western shows up for his big scene. Playing Corin, the supposedly placid little brother left to grieve for Marcus, Western overcomes an unsurprising plot surprise to resemble the kind of raw, real human being the play otherwise lacks. When he breaks down and sobs angrily in his father's arms, his complicated fury suggests the place where Martin should have begun a discussion of what seems increasingly to be a distinctly American rage. Unfortunately, Western's untidy turmoil signals the end of an otherwise orderly evening. STEVE WIECKING

Requiem for a Heavyweight

Theater Schmeater; ends Sat., Oct. 30

Most folks know Rod Serling only as that smirking, smoking host whose bookend comments put the moral chill to all those creepy, black-and-white Twilight Zone episodes, but he was a terrific artist in his own right, a writer deeply concerned with the social and political forces that erode simple human dignity. Requiem is perhaps Serling's finest work, an award-winning teleplay first aired in 1956 and which Theater Schmeater has staged as a gritty, stripped-down piece of melodramatic noir.

The play, directed by Tim Hyland, is proverbially simple: Washed-up heavyweight Mountain McClintock (Jim Gall), the epitome of the trusting, bighearted lug, has reached the end of the line; one more fight likely will kill him. Incapable of envisioning a future beyond the boxing ring and betrayed by Maish (Walter Dalton), his tinhorn manager, Mountain faces the ultimate existential dilemma—how not to become a "punchy," just another punch-drunk fighter regurgitating old glories in the dank corner of a whiskey bar. Hope is offered by Grace (Deniece Bleha), a mousy but pretty social worker whose belief in Mountain is no molehill, and who grants the pug a modicum of self-regard. Yet the forces ranged against this outcast are powerful and threaten to eradicate whatever shred of dignity Mountain maintains. Worst of all, Maish needs Mountain to become a big-time wrestler in order to pay off the queen shark, Ma (Tina La Plant, who doubles as the whore, Golda). Putting on the tights, for a former almost-champion, is the ultimate humiliation, the bottom of the barrel.

Serling's language, ditto the premise, is hard-boiled in the extreme, full of staccato stops, archaic gutter talk, and con-man patois. What keeps this dated material from taking a dive into irrelevance is the timeless urgency of Serling's message, which is driven by fierce intelligence and compassion—that, and the sizzling performances of Gall and Bleha. Bleha oozes sweetness and toughness, and somehow makes the atavistic romance of Mountain and Grace not only believable but affecting. Gall imbues Mountain with all the heartbreak and gut-wrench of the classically beautiful loser; in a role that could easily be tipped by ham-fisted emoting, Gall shows incredible restraint without powdering Mountain's tragic sadness. The whole of the cast, perhaps inspired by his performance, rises to the occasion, giving this old story new legs. RICHARD MORIN

Aunt Dan and Lemon

Penny Cafe; ends Sat., Oct. 23

Wallace Shawn, that cute little bald guy with the lisp and a yen for Chekov, possesses a towering political conscience, a fact that likely would be annoying were it not for the fact that he has the dramatic chutzpah to back up his civic harangues. The man's a hell of a playwright, capable of reducing complex, proto-Marxist arguments about the global wages of sin to the level of primitive humanism. In Aunt Dan and Lemon, Shawn brings politics qua politics to squirming, oozing life in the insinuating voice of Lemon (the wonderful Alyssa Kay), the shut-in Brit who welcomes the audience into her Proustian living room and ends up squashing our expectations like a cockroach with her empathic musings for the Nazis. Ingeniously directed by Jake Merriman, Theatre Unlocked's production is a timely bit of terror; the show rattles you, hard.

The narrative takes the form of layered recollections, as Lemon, with the slack smile and sparkling eyes of a burgeoning sociopath, recalls her upbringing. Her musings focus primarily on her late-night conversations with Aunt Dan (Katy Kingsbery, in a knockout performance), a family friend whose frankness reveals a dangerous incomprehension of propriety. Dan will tell Lemon anything, whether about her obsession with Henry Kissinger, her sexual exploits with married men, or the murderers she has known. If this is a play whose meanings could be unpacked forever, it can be argued that the crux of it all is Dan's at first touching but ultimately deeply incorrect relationship with Lemon—a child forced too soon to bite the apple of human treachery is at risk for some serious nihilism.

Watching this play in such an intimate setting—you're plopped right in Lemon's living room—it's hard to imagine it staged any other way. The space Theatre Unlocked is using, however, has some serious limitations, having to do predominantly with sight lines: Unless you're sitting in the front row, you run the risk of missing a lot of the action. It's not a disastrous shortcoming, and easily could be remedied with a couple of $30 risers built of two-by-fours and a sheet of heavy plywood, but be warned. Other than that, this is a gutsy production that poses some tough questions, and anyone concerned about the political as personal, and vice versa, should absolutely take the ride. RICHARD MORIN

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