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A CurtainUp Review
Last of the Boys
Ben (Dan Kern) lives in a godforsaken trailer, the last holdout at a toxic waste site trailer park. He's the straight man to Jeeter's (Jack Hoffman) jokey, folksy guy. Jeeter has just come from Ben's father's funeral, which Ben, long estranged from his father whom he once idolized, did not attend. Closed off and introverted, Ben is tangled up in denial and regret. His head wanders into ghostly terrain, where he's a Robert McNamara effigy. Jeeter, an entertaining caricature who gets the porker's share of the funny lines, ominously, is not too forthcoming with his long time good buddy. Jeeter's new girlfriend, Salyer (Karen Peakes) and her mother, Lorraine (Susan Moses) who lost her husband to the Vietnam War, enter the good old boys' lives and the story commences. It is difficult for these guys to bond across a gulf that is not only personal, political, and stretched across time, but built into the structure of the play through different approaches to writing character.
It's hard for a director to deal with characters who seem to operate on different levels and it shows. The actors, with the sometime exception of Kern's sensitive approach to the obsessional Ben, do not so much inhabit their characters as indicate them. Peakes plays the Salyer role straight up as someone who has never made an inadvisable or impulsive move in her life, making it hard to fathom how this character has ever done the things she has done. The mother-daughter dynamic isn't developed, and Susan Moses, fairly feisty in the plummy Lorraine role, needs to cut loose.
The play's world premiere in 2004 at McCarter's well equipped Berlind Theatre benefited from inspired set and sound design, sophisticated direction and a brilliant Deborah Hedwall in the underwritten Lorraine role. I bring up this comparison because that production couldn't surmount the plays difficulties either. Matt Saunders' set at InterAct, like the lighting and sound design, is modest and literal. But the close proximity of the small stage to the audience goes a long way to compensate for what the production lacks in imaginative, allegorical dimensions. The space itself lends, gratis, a cozy yet unnerving immediacy, and the personal experience this allows the audience is a major strength of the show.
It is likely that parts of Last of the Boys have seen shaping during the three intervening years since McCarter, which have included a run at Steppenwolf. Its betrayals and paybacks seem more prominent than I remember, and there's more a feel of an impersonal war impacting on people's lives. But while mystery at the heart of a work can be desirable, the opaque and too convenient construction at this play's operational center remains impenetrable. The failure of the central metaphor, which involves the ghost element, may well be due to the fact that it must serve double duty, so the play's central problem, inextricably entwined in the story, is not resolved.
You have to admire InterAct as a time-tested, idiosyncratic, and committed repository of values that is not going to do feelgood work. Plays chosen for production here may be jewels or they may not, but they won't be lightweight and they won't be claptrap. InterAct has mounted two other Dietz plays, Lonely Planet and God's Country. Although the current production of an interesting and problematic Dietz play may want more punch, it is intimate and earnest, and its theme —unfortunately—still resonates big time these days, lending itself to post show discussions over beers. Last of the Boys has heart and it has legs, traveling legs that will be meandering their way across the country.
Last of the Boys--McCarter Theater Review
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