Theater Review: GOOD BOYS (Pasadena Playhouse)

Post image for Theater Review: GOOD BOYS (Pasadena Playhouse)

by Tony Frankel on July 1, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles


Gay playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (contributor to Glee and Big Love) gets a revival of his drama Good Boys and True that premiered at Steppenwolf ten years ago. There is some solid stagecraft in his story about a privileged prep-school teen caught up in a sex scandal, but it’s shocking that while Aguirre has updated the play somewhat — unnecessarily changing the title to Good Boys for the Pasadena Playhouse — he has yet to fix the show’s main problems. And this is one script that deserves to be fixed. As it stands, I can recommend this production for some awesome acting and taut, burning scenes, but to say that it doesn’t resolve emotionally or otherwise — even if that is the playwright’s intention — is an understatement.

When it debuted, the play covered a sex scandal involving privileged lacrosse players at Duke University. Here the setting is much like the playwright’s own experiences at the toxically entitled Georgetown Prep — we are at Saint Joseph’s, an exclusive Jesuit prep school for boys in 1988. An excessively smarmy videotape found in a locker depicts what seems like handsome, smart Brandon Hardy, a senior jock from a wealthy family, having raw, ugly sex with a minor who’s clearly unaware that her loss of virginity was being reduced to amateur porn. Brandon, pampered scion of renowned physicians, must answer to his mother Elizabeth, who demands to know whether he’s the boy in the tape and who the girl is. Meanwhile, Brandon’s coach tries to contain the uproar by temporarily banning sports, the lifeblood of this ostensible institution of learning.

Will this outrage damage Brandon’s chances for Dartmouth, even though he’s a “legacy” certainty for admission? And what about Brandon’s closeted and conditional devotion to his infinitely more honest buddy Justin Simmons? Are the sins of the father (whom we never meet) visited on the son? What about the rights of the victim?

All the story plot points are perfectly in place but for one thing: Aguirre-Sacasa loses sight of who the story is about. Elizabeth, who has had inherent trust in her son and his learning institution, is rightly distraught about the sex tape, yet it seems scene after scene that all she really wants is validation that Brandon is still a good boy. Which is fine, as she no doubt feels culpable somehow, but then all of those other juicy parts of the story — especially the gay relationship with Justin — sit there like a hanging chad. The play is clearly about Brandon and his image; putting Elizabeth front-and-center takes the steam out of the play’s many revelations, which dissipate just as things gets interesting.

Aguirre-Sacasa, whose TV work shows itself in a series of scenes that almost scream for a commercial break after each new reveal, can create solid stagecraft with a moral center, even as the TV-movie plot isn’t particularly groundbreaking. What distinguishes Good Boys from modern moral melodramas is its determination to show how class influences and often deforms character: Unearned privilege corrupts a personality as much as celebrity worship or overnight fame.

Director Carolyn Cantor almost highlights the script’s inadequacies with set designer Dane Laffrey’s elongated playing areas that lack depth; some out-of-place music choices (Jeffrey Bernstein, Music Consultant); and Daniel Gower’s low-key sound design that does nothing for those actors who weren’t trained in projecting. What Cantor does give us is some pile-driving performances that help make this a memorable night: A determined Betsy Brandt plays Elizabeth with an unforced nobility and Ben Ahlers beautifully hides any internal moral dilemma as the confident Brandon, leaving a final breakdown scene as shocking as it should be (sadly, an annoyance of moths hovered over these two for much of the show, even landing in their hair). Pretty but not cruel, Dylan Arnold delivers a strong case for authenticity as Justin, Brandon’s gay friend, an unspoiled preppie who simply wants to win on his own merits. Arnold’s is one of my favorite performances all year.

Good Boys is strong enough to update, and improve on, Tea and Sympathy, in which a student is accused of being gay and sleeps with an instructor’s wife to prove his masculinity. Here, we see how internalized homophobia creates the thinking that it’s far worse to be gay than to be a rapist. This sad and still-topical issue could be the crux of Good Boys, which has all the insights it needs. It just requires more depth.

photos by Jenny Graham

Good Boys
Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena
Tues-Fri at 8; Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7 (dark July 7 at 7)
ends on July 21, 2019
for tickets, call 626.356.7529 or visit Pasadena Playhouse


HeathCliff Rothman July 14, 2019 at 5:41 pm

Thanks, Tony. I’m glad to find one of your reviews. I remember our conversation sitting beside each other at the Road Theatre. I similarly was equivocal about the narrative and dramatic structure of the play, though I liked the acting, for the most part.

Tony Frankel July 15, 2019 at 12:43 pm

Thanks, HeathCliff. What amazes me the most is that the play has been rewritten since its opening, but the problems are still glaringly obvious.

Comments on this entry are closed.