Review: Keen Company’s Transformative “Boy” at the Clurman Theatre

Review: Keen Company’s Transformative “Boy” at the Clurman Theatre

David Roberts

OnStage Chief New York Theatre Critic

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NEW YORK, NY - “I wouldn’t want to be Frankenstein.” (Adam to Jenny in “Boy”)

The Keen Company’s Mission is to create “theater that provokes identification, reflection, and emotional connection – enduring stories fearlessly told.” In order to fulfill that mission, there must be a master storyteller who knows how to create characters with conflicts (problems) that are not only engaging but connectable. The Keen Company has gloriously fulfilled their stated mission with their production of distinguished storyteller Anna Ziegler’s masterpiece “Boy” currently playing at the Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row.

Photo: Carol Rosegg

Photo: Carol Rosegg

The story is remarkably simple and under Linsay Firman’s steady and straightforward direction, the brilliant ensemble cast brings that story to a level of authenticity and catharsis rarely seen on the New York stage at present. Based on the events from the true “John/Jane” case, “Boy” chronicles the life of Adam Turner (Bobby Steggert) a Davenport, Iowa boy – one of twins – whose genitals are severely damaged during a botched circumcision procedure. Boston researcher Dr. Wendell Barnes (Paul Niebanck) hears of the boy’s story and reaches out to his parents suggesting – that since penile reconstruction surgery is not a possibility at the time – the boy be raised as a girl (Samantha) and gender reassignment begin under his continued care. 

Playwright Anna Ziegler handles the telling of this Samantha to Adam story with just the right mix of pathos, ethos, and logos – her writing could not be more persuasive and her skilled use of rhetorical devices is a testament to her craft as a playwright. Each scene is tightly written and demanding on the actors to convey the action of the scenes with a deep sense of authenticity. Her writing demands and encourages honest and transparent performances. The play moves seamlessly between the past and the present and from one setting to another without any confusion or misunderstanding. Adam’s (the “boy’s chosen name after bravely claiming his identity) journey from loneliness to self-acceptance and self-understanding is spellbinding, challenging, and transformative of spirit.

Bobby Steggert delivers a profoundly exquisite performance as the mid-twenties Adam as well as the pre-school to thirteen-year-old Samantha. Mr. Steggert declines the temptation to separate the two characters by an exaggerated difference in demeanor, physicality, or speech pattern. He embodies Samantha’s sadness and Adam’s need for deep connection with grace and deep understanding. Rebecca Rittenhouse gives Jenny Lafferty – Adams’ love interest after reclaiming his gender identity and his grade school friend when he was Samantha – just enough combative grit to counter Adam’s effusive
interest in her and her son. The chemistry between Ms. Rittenhouse and Mr. Steggert at the end of “Boy” is powerful and deeply laden with appropriate emotional layering.

Heidi Armbruster and Ted Koch could not be more perfect as Adam’s parents. These two remarkable actors are able to balance a wide range of emotions and “identities” as two struggling working-class parents confronted with what seems an insurmountable problem. Their honest characters are vulnerable, confused, conflicted, and conscious that their care of Samantha and their ultimate acceptance of Adam transcends any medical intervention. The scenes between Adam and Doug are deeply moving and – in a very short space of time – manage to capture the complicated relationship between father and son.

Paul Niebanck navigates the emotional terrain of his character Dr. Wendell Barnes with palpable tenderness. Mr. Niebanck displays the delicate balance between his caring for Samantha and his need to publish her story for science with believability and heartfelt contention. 

The creative team supports Ms. Ziegler’s script in serviceable, sometimes, extraordinary ways. Nick Francone’s lighting is exquisite; Sydney Maresca’s costumes are period appropriate across the twenty-two-year span of events; Shane Rettig’s original music and sound design are understated and appropriate; and Sandra Goldmark’s scenic design captures (with Mr. Rettig’s sound) the variety of settings with exactitude. The script is so strong, Ms. Goldmark need not have created the “two-tier” set convention to parallel the play’s emotional core – the audience understands what is going on solely on the durability of the script.

“Boy” is less about the intricies and complicated scientific details of “nurture versus nature” research (and speculation), and the complexities and complications of gender reassignment surgery and more about the indomitable power of Adam’s sprit of survival that enables him to hold fast to his identity despite the pressure of others for him to be other than he is.  The audience can relate to Adam’s struggle on a variety of rich and challenging levels. And the play raises a significant number of deep, rich, and enduring questions about acceptance of self, human endurance, the healing power of true love, and the resilience of the human spirit. This is the story of a boy who just wants to be a boy. It is a story worth seeing more than once.

BOY

“Boy” is presented by the Keen Company, the Ensemble Studio Theatre, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

The cast of “Boy” includes Heidi Armbruster, Ted Koch, Paul Niebanck, Rebecca Rittenhouse, and Bobby Steggert. The creative team includes Sandra Goldmark (set design), Sydney Maresca (costume design), Nick Francone (lighting design), and Shane Rettig (music and sound design). Production photos by Carol Rosegg.

“Boy” runs at the Clurman Theatre on Theater Row (410 West 42nd Street) on the following schedule: Tuesday – Thursday at 7:00 p.m.; Friday 8:00 p.m.; Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; Sunday at 3:00 p.m.; and Wednesday April 6 at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $62.50 and are available by visiting http://www.keencompany.org/boy/. Running time is 90 minutes without intermission. 

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