Photo by Don Kellogg

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Wild Animals You Should Know

If there's an off-Broadway play you should see this season, add Thomas Higgins' thought provoking, contemporary new work, Wild Animals You Should Know, to your list.  The play is not an "answer" play, but rather a play that presents characters and situations and leaves you to assemble your own judgments.   Mr. Higgins, along with the young and talented director Trip Cullman, certainly have their own points of view, but this is one of those plays that suggests, pokes, and prods you in a direction, but never comes out and tells you what you should walk away thinking.  In this light - my review may be one of many you read - and you may find someone else with an entirely different take on what they saw.   And I'm pretty sure that's just what Mr's Cullman and Higgins intend.

Jacob (Gideon Glick), an awkward, skinny, affable yet shy, dorky, friendly, openly-gay middle school kid in the suburbs (think Curt from Glee, if you must) is in love with Matthew (Jay Armstrong Johnson) a virtually perfect human specimen - to-die-for looks, blond hair, chiseled body, talented, smart, athletic, outgoing, engaging and fun to be around (think... well fill in your own fantasy with that one).   Right from the very beginning both Jacob (and the audience) is teased by pretty-boy Matthew stripping his clothes off for Jacob over Skype.   Is Matthew gay?  Or is he just an attention-craving teenage boy with a bestie who's gay?  That happens today, right?  Not sure yet.  He claims he's not.  Things heat up when Matthew gazes out his window and catches a glimpse of two men in a window across the street kissing.  He's fascinated (or is it more?). The man happens to be his handsome 20-something Boy Scout Troop Leader (shocker!), Rodney (John Behlmann).  He goes on later to make a passing reference to Jacob's great blow jobs which he enjoys but of course for which he never reciprocates.  Did he just say that? Maybe?  Still not sure.

When the two teen-boys end up going on a camping trip with the Scout Leader, Matthew sets the wheels in motion to "out" the scout leader by coming onto him and then threatening to tell everyone he was molested by the leader if he didn't resign.   The sexual tension and anger in this scene is palpable back to the last row of the theatre.  Unfortunately, his plot works and not only does the scout leader end up resigning, he's outed to the entire town and now everyone is speculating as to why he was involved with the scouts in the first place.

Matthew's father, Walter, (Patrick Breen) is involved in the camping trip too and he has his own set of issues - some suggested and others admitted - husband-wife (Alice Ripley) issues, father-son issues, inferiority, assertiveness.  Matthew is clearly the proverbial gun in this single act play.  And this gun is not only fired directly at Rodney, it's fired repeatedly at his best friend Jacob and indirectly at his father (and mother).

The entire 100 minutes are spent speculating who and what Matthew really is is deep down inside.  I made up my mind early on, mostly taking my cues from the periodic spot-lighting of characters in certain scenes, the purposeful looks, and the general repetition of the proposition and theme itself - plus, of course, my own personal experiences growing up gay.  I'm pretty sure that we're supposed to leave the theatre feeling sorry for Matthew, even after all he's done to destroy others' lives.  The only way I can see you could feel that way after all he's done is to logically conclude that for all his outward popularity, perfection, and all-American good-looks and talents is that he's really gay and frightened to death someone will find out and it will ruin his life.  His only mechanism to deal with it is to wield his power  (i.e. his ego, talents, and beauty) to dominate others and prove he's superior when all the while he's hurting on the inside yearning to break free.

I'm pretty sure either Mr. Cullman or Mr Higgins himself made sure that the very last scene of the play clinched the deal for those that hadn't already made up their minds.  You'll just have to sit through all 99 minutes to see what I mean.   The last minute is well worth the other 98.