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The Dead Eye Boy
What will happen to the dead eye boy?
I don't know but he won't be around for long.
---Soren (the title character),
in his autobiography at age 9
A fourteen year old girl is raped. The reminder of that horrific experience is now a 14 year old son, Soren (Aaron Himelstein). His mother, Shirley-Diane (Lili Taylor), a recovering addict, has raised him. The boy, a by-product of his mother’s immaturity and drugs, is, not surprisingly, what we would label "troubled".
Billy (Joseph Murphy), a decent man, struggling but seemingly succeeding at getting his life back in order after a checkered past, meets Shirley at Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous and, after a time, asks her to marry him. She agrees. Despite the usual resentment and jealousy that such a man engenders in a boy, Billy understands how to deal with Soren a great deal better than his mother does. (Her method consists mostly of threatening and berating him.) She has plenty of reasons she'd like him out of her life.
The deck is stacked against Soren. The unpleasant consequence is one of several that might have been predicted.
Angus MacLachlan's play, arriving in New York with a major Cincinnati playwriting prize, presents a series of scenes -- most in the living room of Shirley's working class home, a couple telling ones that flash back to the time when Soren was 9 years old. Some are quite compelling, but as a whole they remind us how much easier it is to write some very good scenes than a very good play. MacLachlan never quite settles on what story it is he is trying to tell and so, in the aggregate, Dead Eye Boy never quite hits its mark.
The subject matter catalogues a host of unpleasant pathologies that we read about in the newspaper and see on the evening news just about every day. But like the characters, who are frustrated because the rungs of the ladder that might extricate them from their situations will not support them, the play never achieves the necessary foothold to illuminate that which it is describing. There's plenty of exposition here, but not a great deal of insight. The best we can say is that there are the makings of a good play, but not the play itself. The subject matter makes us wish we might resurrect Strindberg as a dramaturg.
Susan Fenichell's direction doesn't aid our understanding. She asks too much of the audience in following her to various settings without ever taking us out of the suitably tract home-ish living room Christine Jones has designed. Repetition gives the production an oddly claustrophobic feel; nothing tempts us to see past its gritty naturalism. In a sense it feels like a two hour P.J. Harvey music video, interrupted by a lot of talk.
Lili Taylor, much admired on film for playing women with tough-as-nail exteriors, is in her element here. One can't quibble with the casting, although it can't be said she finds a way to break out of the largely two-dimensional character MacLachlan has written. There's also a sense of distance in her interactions with the son -- a sort of uncomfortable no man's land that occludes deeper intuitions. On the other hand, Aaron Himelstein, a high school freshman, renders an impressively more fully realized portrayal, and Joseph Murphy's Billy is reasonably convincing. His chemistry with the boy is a good deal more vivid.
Dead Eye Boy is the sort of edgy drama that can make good theater, and MacLachlan's dialogue has an authenticity, lacking in many contemporary American plays of this sort, that is commendable. On the surface, he's not afraid to present the rough images of sex, drugs, violence and so on, but his blade never pierces the façade enough to reveal what might lie beneath. Write on, please, but tell us something we don't already know.
THE DEAD EYE BOY
by Angus MacLachlan
Directed by Susan Fenichell
with Aaron Himelstein, Joseph Murphy and Lili Taylor
Set Design: Christine Jones
Costume Design: David Zinn
Lighting Design: Russell H. Champa
Fight Director: Rick Sordelet
Running Time: 2 hours including 1 intermission
Manhattan Class Company, 120 W. 28th St. (6/7 Avs.)
Telephone (212) 727-7765
Opening April 22, 2001 closing May 5, 2001
Mon. - Sat. @8, Sat. @3; $35
Les Gutman based on 4/19/01 performance