To begin with, the title is a ruse. When playwright Rebecca Gilman chose the words Boy Gets Girl she was mocking the last line of that romantic comedy formula, “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl…” Well, forget that. The highly idiomatic English language allows the word “get” to make several slippery puns. He could get her by putting her pigtail in an inkwell, or he could get her by calling her on a verbal gaffe. Darker possibilities abound. He could get her where he wants her. To get can be expanded to mean to seize and to terrify. The Syracuse University Drama Department’s latest show is a drama about stalking.
The first scene of Boy Gets Girl, an uncomfortable blind date, still allows for the possibility of a romantic comedy. The boy is Tony (James Weirich), an ill-at-ease but eager computer nerd. The girl is Theresa Bedell (Sarah Neslusan), a sleek but overworked writer for an arts-oriented magazine that sounds like an unlikely blend of The Nation and Vanity Fair. Tony’s first “get” comes when Sarah is caught fibbing about her cell phone not working. He’s forgiving. Nothing terrible happens, but they’re clearly running on different tracks. Theresa speaks of her interest in Edith Wharton, and Tony’s never heard of her. When Theresa offers, “You know, Age of Innocence?” Tony responds, “Oh, yeah, the Winona Ryder movie.” More ominously, he tries to steal a kiss, but she still agrees to another date.
While the first encounter was uneasy, the second quickly descends into a train wreck. Theresa politely offers, “I don’t think I’m good relationship material,” but his responses are both possessive and smarmy: “Are you afraid of intimacy? Too repressed to fall in love?” Her increasingly intense rebuffs embolden him, as if, against all that we see, she really means yes when she says no. Within stage minutes he’s making demanding calls to her unlisted number and barging into her office, then flooding her office with flowers. Theresa’s air-headed shopaholic new secretary Harriet (Carly Augenstein) finds Tony’s unwanted solicitude to be cute.
Lecher’s delight: Sarah Neslusan and Craig MacDonald in SU Drama’s Boy Gets Girl. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
Up until this point a summary of the action in Boy Gets Girl may make it sound like a baser form: a thriller, a TV movie or, worse, a TV-movie thriller. But Gilman takes us in another direction: by removing the predator Tony from the stage the nutsier his outrages become. Instead, she allows other characters to view the action and comment, such as her avuncular editor Howard Siegel (Daniel Skinner) and her anxious fellow writer Mercer Stevens (Jacob Heimer), neither a suggested romantic partner.
Both are clueless about women. In a sequence written to delight the distaff side of the audience, they wonder why her calendar is marked with a circled dot for each month. While generally sympathetic with Theresa, Howard and Mercer wonder aloud if classic movie plots encourage Tony, recounting something that sounds like The Graduate where the outcast nerd wins in the end. Mercer also admits that fantasies of intercourse occur when he stands near Theresa.
A female officer of the law, Madeline Beck (Gabriela Fernandez), seems the most grounded, but her advice is chilling and unlikely as a police perspective. She tells Theresa to change her church, change her name and move
Most unexpectedly, another character also comments—most obliquely—on Theresa’s plight. That’s the septuagenarian soft porn movie director Les Kennkat (Craig MacDonald) she is sent to interview. At first blush Kennkat looks like a comic conflation of Russ Meyer and Bob Guccione, obsessed only with breasts and his own ego.
Whereas the script allows for some nervous titters up until this point, MacDonald’s portrayal, aided by director Marie Kemp, turns Kennkat into a showstopper. At his entrance, Kennkat is jiving to the disco beat of the Bee Gees in “Stayin’ Alive.” His coffee table is strewn with tattered copies of Playboy. As he is supposed to be 72, no student could take the role, which went to MacDonald, considerably younger than that but gray and balding. The performance takes down the house, even louder for performances attended by any number of MacDonald’s students.
In the second act Kennkat turns out to have the longest character arc. Bedridden from a colon operation, he retains some of the old brio but takes new directions. His raging libido, it turns out, is something of a bluff. He regrets his past promiscuity that ruined the marriage to Cathy (screen name Joy Box). He alone among all the characters is capable of sustained introspection.
And that, in turn, is what Boy Gets Girl is really about. Paradoxically, in the second act tension plateaus and even slips a little. Instead the dramatic energy turns inward as Theresa explores more of her own consciousness. In this Boy Gets Girl resembles Gilman’s earlier hit Spinning Into Butter, seen at Ithaca’s Hangar Theatre in 2002. In action ostensibly about race and political correctness, the play’s energies are directed toward the soul of a morally sensitive woman. Here a highly intelligent woman, who constantly makes references to themes in American literature (Thoreau, Emerson, Bronson Alcott, W.D. Howells) struggles to know how much of her self she has to sacrifice for momentary safety.
Unusual in student productions, much of the burden for the success of Boy Gets Girl rests on one set of shoulders. We quickly forget that Sarah Neslusan is too young and attractive for Theresa, whose circumstances suggest is rather plain. Neslusan enjoys the symmetrical beauty of a 1940s Hollywood star, like a younger Alexis Smith. Her dramatic persona is more like what we now associate with the older Jodie Foster: vulnerable, reflective and gathering strength on her own against the odds. What a fortunate credit on which to begin a career.
Lauren J. Levesque’s simultaneous set, ably lighted by Christine E. Bernat, gradually reveals Theresa’s bedroom and puts a modish Aeron chair in her office. Katherine “Row” Walters’ sound design enhances Tony’s menace.
All cast members demonstrate that SU Drama attracts the crème de la crème of student talent, but Carly Augenstein shines in the thankless task of making vacuity dangerous.
Boy Gets Girl opened at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in spring 2000, then went on to acclaim around the English-speaking world in the next year. In that near decade some incidentals to the action have changed drastically. Theresa wonders if she can escape to a daily newspaper in Denver. One hopes it was not the 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News, which folded last month.
This production runs through Sunday, March 29. See Times Table for information.