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Theater Tue Jan 22 2013
In his poem "Among School Children," Yeats famously asked, "How can we know the dancer from the dance?" In the case of the latest production of Rebecca Gilman's play Boy Gets Girl at the Raven Theatre, I found myself considering the question not as a philosopher of aesthetics, but rather from the much simpler and much angrier perspective of one faced with the question of who was responsible for what I had just watched. Who is at fault when an ambitious piece of political theater fails so spectacularly at providing even a glimmer of insight? Who is to blame here: the dancers or the dance?
To diagnose the problem from the root, Gilman's play exhibits some basic structural problems that only make it harder for it communicate its politically tone-deaf message. All of the characters are both flat and uninteresting, from Theresa Bedell (Kristin Collins), a journalist in New York City who becomes the target of a stalker's vicious energies, to her editor, Howard (Will Casey), to Harriet (Symphony Sanders), an insufferably stupid office assistant. Despite the fact that the play is ostensibly about the terror of knowing that someone is obsessed with causing you harm, it lacks any clear momentum. Things happen, and then other things happen. Two and a half excruciating hours later, the play ends. Aside from the stalker, Tony (John Stokvis), whose goals are explicit only because he states them outright in his gruesome letters, it's not at all clear what anyone else wants, so there's no way to know if any of them are satisfied when all is said and done, or even if any of them have learned anything.
This is the much larger and more offensive problem with Boy Gets Girl, which is that its characters' revelations are either so obvious as to be depressing or so obtuse as to be literally laughable. Boy Gets Girl could have been a very dark, edgy comic satire if Gilman had just pushed her characters' ludicrous ignorance just a little bit further. To be clear, it's not that there's anything wrong with ignorant characters. But there is something wrong with a cast full of journalists--i.e. people paid to be informed--who are as ignorant about gender dynamics (and, by extension, rape culture) as these dolts seem to be. And they're not even just ignorant, because they're also flagrantly incompetent. When Theresa expresses disbelief that Howard isn't familiar with the 19th century writer William Dean Howells, he quips that he drank through college. Incidentally, Howard also has awful editorial judgment, sending Theresa on an insipid assignment to profile Les Kennkat (Leonard Kraft), an aging cult filmmaker whose obsession with large breasts Gilman seems to find hilarious even though his character is completely unnecessary. Theresa, for her part, performs a terrible interview and yet still plans to write a profile on the man based on next to no information. It's unethical, but we're clearly meant to view it as some kind of daring, renegade maneuver.
Gilman's depiction of journalism is offensive not only because her reporters constantly pat themselves on the back for doing their jobs terribly, but also because the unbelievability of their existence points to a larger trend of laziness on the part of the playwright. Gilman clearly has no idea what journalism entails; she has also taken the time to have no idea what New York City is like. When Theresa tells Tony that she lives on 74th Street on the East Side, he remarks, "By the Park!" to which she agrees, remarkably. He might as well have said "By the Empire State Building!"
The offense only increases once you actually listen to the stupid words coming out of these characters' stupid mouths. Gilman's mission is ostensibly to show how modern technology and the lack of adequate security in our cities have created a scenario wherein any wackjob with a little free time can ruin someone's life if he wants to. You get the sense that she wants the audience to witness how this maniac can shred every aspect of Theresa's life to bits, how, aside from the halfhearted efforts of an overworked police force, there's not much anyone can do about it other than clean up the damage after the havoc has already been wreaked.
There's nothing inherently wrong with either of these prerogatives. The audacious kicker, however, and what makes the entire effort intellectually bust, is that Gilman seems to think that the closest thing to a solution we have to the problem of modern sexual predation is for everyone to be afraid of everyone, including ourselves, all of the time. It's a premise that's not only pessimistic, disempowering, and fatalistic, but also one that implicitly demeans the capacities of every man and woman in the theater, onstage and off.
Let's start with the men. Or at least, men as Gilman imagines them, because it's hard to tell from her dialogue and character construction whether she's actually ever met any. Tony's malfunction is ironically the most defensible one in the play. He's a stalker, one who, beneath his paper-thin respectability, essentially believes he should be able to have sex with any woman he wants. Like the crazed misogynist he is, he chalks up Theresa's rejection of his advances to her own issues: she's afraid of intimacy; she didn't take the time to get to find out what a great guy he is; etc. Stockvis isn't actually onstage for most of the play because he doesn't have to be. He's less a character than an archetype--the everyman as dangerous stranger--which is just as well, since Gilman botches the creation of anything more complicated than that.
Take Howard, who is both Theresa's boss and somewhat of a mentor figure. That he can manage either is remarkable, seeing as he is also a total moron. When Mercer (John Stutzman), the newest staff writer at the magazine, pitches an article about how depictions of romance in TV and movies prime men to expect that persistent romantic pursuit is always rewarded, Howard is amazed by his ingenuity. ("Amazed" may be the wrong word--Casey plays the role with so little emotive variation that the only real indicator of how he's feeling is whether his mouth is closed or hanging open.) The argument is old, and it's hard to believe that it wasn't old in 2000, when the play originally premiered. But it's also stale and something anyone even vaguely familiar with feminist thought would definitely know. Howard doesn't know it, which is only a problem because he's the editor of a culture magazine. It's not unreasonable to assume that he understands something about contemporary gender politics.
What's more shocking is how in love Mercer seems to be with his own painfully inchoate musings on the systemic realities of sexism. Entertainment media often perpetuate the values of the patriarchy even without necessarily meaning to. Good for Mercer. But there's never any indication beyond the initial idea that he's actually done any research on the topic. Maybe that's because if he did, he would see that it's been covered in more depth and by much smarter people than he hundreds of times before. What's more, it's insulting to subject an audience to this kind of ham-handed thematic exposition when the guy should have just taken a gender studies class in college if he was so interested.
Mercer is also the one saddled with the most directly accusatory and unfairly inflammatory theory in the play: that he, with his unconscious assumptions about male power, exists on the same spectrum as Tony. The revelation bothers Mercer. Hell, it tortures him. Toward the end of the play, he admits to Howard that when he first started at the magazine, he found Theresa sexually desirable. This is a big moment. It's meant to give us pause. After all, what makes Tony's feelings so different? If all men are subtly indoctrinated with this presumed entitlement, aren't they all capable of this kind of violent obsession?
Gilman frames these as deep questions with complex answers, but the real answer is very simple: NO. Boy Gets Girl commits a disservice to everyone involved by suggesting that the only difference between men is the length of their respective fuses. Gilman seriously proposes here that socially ingrained beliefs about entitlement have turned the entire male population into a race of closeted predators. The easiest refutation of such a claim is that its validity is predicated on the premise that men lack the self-consciousness to know better. Mercer develops over the course of the play into a stand-in for an awakening male conscience, but any power such a gesture may have had is overshadowed by his reprehensible dim-wittedness. Has he really never considered any of these issues prior to the events onstage? Where has he been for the past half century? The main difference between Tony and Mercer--and one given shockingly little consideration--is not that Mercer's inner predator is merely buried a little deeper. The difference between them is that Tony is mentally ill. He has a problem, and it's not his gender.
Gilman also manages to malign the capacities of her own gender. The ultimate irony of the play is that while Gilman wants us to believe that this kind of thing could happen to anyone, Theresa Bedell is such a vague outline of a real person that she ends up being no one at all. We're meant to witness a transformation, to see how a confident, put-together professional woman can be broken, made paranoid, worn down through abuse to the point where she questions the very fabric of her identity. The argument could be made that Theresa is meant to be general, intended to be the subject of an "It could happen to you!"-style cautionary tale. But the construction of her character struck me as but another aspect of Gilman's failure. If Theresa is, in fact, meant to be a generic stand-in, then the whole play is even more of an insult to the audience's intelligence. The truth is that Theresa's personality and history are so insufficiently fleshed out that it's often difficult to understand why she reacts the way she does to other characters' attempts to comfort or engage with her.
Similarly, the detective assigned to the case (Kristen Williams) is completely unhelpful. Her most useful contributions are an irrelevant story about how her parents refused to pay for her college tuition (from which Theresa nonsensically extracts comfort) and a hug that presumably conveys some kind of "significant" female solidarity. The most insultingly female character of all is Harriet, the office assistant, who appears to have bought into the patriarchy's fantasies of what she should be hook, line, and sinker. She wears ultra-high wedges all the time. She goes gaga when Tony sends Theresa flowers at work--you know, because getting flowers is like heroin for women. She gives Theresa some perfume as an apology for giving Tony her home phone number before she knew he was a stalker. When Theresa understandably fires her for it, she breaks down like the china doll she believes herself to be. Gilman wasn't obligated to include a character who was a paragon of feminine strength, and it's valuable to point out that women living on their own in urban settings have some wholly justified fears that men simply don't encounter. But to tackle these concerns by making all of her female characters are so depressingly inept, so trapped by their genders, gets across the wrong message entirely.
Does Theresa have anything to celebrate in the insane universe Gilman has created for her? Well, she has the Yankees, whom she goes on about with the single-minded insistence of a gambling addict. She's got Mercer and Howard, but it's hard to view that as a positive considering that Theresa would be better off with a support network comprised of a pair of precocious twelve-year-olds. (Mercer is positively mortified when he realizes that the marked boxes on Theresa's calendar are the dates when she projects her period will start. How gross!) There's her relationship with Les Kennkat, the ribald, geriatric director, whose misogyny appears to be only superficial, and therefore somehow ultimately endearing. But he's also somewhat of a manchild, obsessed with breasts mainly because he's oblivious to almost everything else. It's not a spoiler, exactly, to reveal that Theresa's life is completely destroyed by the end of the play. She has to change her name; she has to move to a different city. She is allowed one brief moment of vindication when she reasons that relocating doesn't "let Tony win," as Mercer ludicrously argues it would, because he's already won.
The sad truth is that nobody wins here. Not the characters, whose pathetic revelations, if groundbreaking when the play premiered, are now obvious to anyone with any interest at all in the current literature on gender. Not the actors, who are charged with giving voice to Gilman's misguided notion of civic education. And certainly not the audience, who must endure the endless condescension of a story so unfair to both men and women it wouldn't even make it onto the Lifetime channel. The production's only semblance of competence comes in the form of the technical team, who provide the costumes, sets, light, and sound that makes this jaw-dropping failure possible. "How can we know the dancer from the dance?" Trust me: in this case, you're better off living in ignorance of both.
Boy Gets Girl runs through Mar. 2 at the Raven Theatre's West Stage, 6157 N. Clark St. If you really must, tickets are $36 and can be purchased online or by phone at 773-338-2177.