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A CurtainUp Review

"I think maybe some people have to play God."— excerpt from letter by the desperate mother of twin boy sexually maimed as a result of a terrible accident to the sexologist-psychologist Dr. Wendell Barnes.
Bobby Steggert
Bobby Steggart as the title character.
Anna Ziegler first joined the ranks of a happily growing group of interesting writers in 2007 with BFF, an emotionally affecting play about friendship and romantic love. Two years with Dov and Ali , she freshened up the familiar dilemma of young people raised in deeply religious environments through the parallel stories of a young Jewish teacher and his Muslim student. with Delicate Ship she used a past to present and beyond narrative structure, to present a familiar love triangle to satisfyingly clarifying effect.

As with Photograph 51 Ziegler's most high profile play to date (thanks to a London production starring Nicole Kidman, review), the just opened Boy, delves into the world of science. Unlike the Keen Company's usual new looks at familiar plays, this is a world premiere and, given that it's based on an actual case history, it's an apt collaboration with Ensemble Studio Theatre.

The case Ziegler has dramatized is a heart breaker, a horrible example of a well-intentioned but distressingly wrong-headed experiment that created a tricky bond between a working class family and a well-known sexologist-psychologist over the course of twenty-two years. The situation leading to that bond was a botched circumcision of an 8-month-old twin boy that made the parents desperate enough to trust the doctor to "play God" and follow his advice to allow sexual reassignment surgery and raise him as a girl.

Boy was inspired by the first Gender Identity Clinic established in 1965 at John Hopkins Hospital and a controversial case known as "John/Joan." The real Dr. John Money's counterpart is now Dr. Wendell Barnes (Paul Niebanck), and the parents and of the unfortunate infant are Trudy and Doug Turner (Heidi Ambruster and Ted Koch). It's a fascinating story and smartly structured to connect the Turners with Dr. Barnes via a televised interview that prompts Trudi Turner to write to him. But the real tragic center of the story is the child who is castrated and "reborn" as Samantha and after years of confusion and unhappiness is reborn again as Adam. But while Adam falls deeply in love with Jenny Lafferty (Rebecca Rittenhouse), his troublesome medical history doesn't bode well for consummating that love.

The parents and doctor are essential to Adam's story, and the stalled romance makes for a valid plot complication, Boy would risk descending into the weepy Lifetime TV genre without Bobby Steggert's richly nuanced performance. Steggert who at thirty-five still passes easily for this 23-year-old character, has gone from strength to strength as an actor. He is so natural and deeply touching here that the flashbacks to the Samantha/ Dr.Barnes interchanges deflect the doctor's rather smarmy involvement with the unhappy girl-child he created. (Steggart's "monster" costume is a clever reference to how he feels about his role in the doctor's experiment at the Halloween party where he first meets Jenny).

Lindsay Firman, who directed the Emsemble Studio productions of Photograph 51 and another rising star playwright Lucas Hnath's Isaac's Eye, steers the rest of the cast to do their best with their roles. It's perhaps unfair to fault her or Paul Niebanck for failing to make Doctor Barnes come off less creepy and manipulative.

Sandra Goldmark's simple set is the most memorable aspect of the stagecraft. She's divided the Clurman's wide stage to easily and smoothly accommodate the various locations, with Adam's apartment and the Turner home at the center. The suspension of the furniture on the ceiling cleverly symbolizes the double life unfolding before us.

Fortunately, we've come a long way towards a better understanding and dealing with situations like the one that inspired this play. But Ms. Zieglor's revisiting nature/nurture issues when dealing with them were still exploratory is a powerful caveat to validate a quote from Stuart Firestein's Ignorance: How it Drives Science at the beginning of her script: "There is no surer way to screw up an experiment than to be certain of its outcome.

Check out our annotated list of previously reviewed Science-Related Plays
Boy by Anna Ziegler
Directed by Linsay Firman
Cast: Bobby Steggert (Adam Turner), Heidi Armbruster (Trudi Turner), Ted Koch (Doug Turner), Paul Niebanck (Dr. Wendell Barnes), Rebecca Rittenhouse (Jenny Lafferety).
Sets: Sandra Goldmark
Costumes: Sydney Maresca
Lighting: Nick Francone
Sound: Shane Rettig
Props: Ricola Wille
Stage Manager: Rhonda Picou Running Time: 90 minutes
Keen Company and Ensemble Studio Theatre at The Clurman Theatre410 West 42nd 212/239-6200
From 2/23/16; opening 3/10/16; closing 4/09/16
Tuesday through Thursday evenings at 7pm; Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 2pm & 8pm; and Sunday matinees at 3pm.
Tickets: $61.25 or $80 for Premium Seating. Student and rush discounts available.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at March 8th press preview
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