I was attracted to the concept of A Real Boy the moment I read the log line: Puppet parents adopt a human child. (This is not a spoiler. Even the most inexperienced of theatergoers is bound to notice this attribute of Max’s parents the moment they shuffle into his kindergarten classroom on their little wooden feet, strings and control handles attached.) The play lands some of the anticipated satirical punches, but it’s hard to make the argument that the darkly comic work is a total success.
To be clear, I can accept even the highest of concepts provided the writer stays within the boundaries of his own mythology. Unfortunately parameters that are drawn in the first few minutes are broken almost immediately when a character who is supposed to live in a black-and-white world enters wearing blue glasses. This is only the beginning of the muddled thoughts that swirl around what it means to be “puppet”. How much do you or we acknowledge your “other part”: the obvious human member of Actors Equity who sometimes participates in a scene whenever tiny hands won’t do? Do humans evolve into puppets simply with enough exposure? If so, how does that translate in families with members who are not exactly mainstream?
The unclear vision of the Puppet Universe is just the beginning of playwright Stephen Kaplan’s challenges. As the plot moves along, he creates a serious case of metaphorical whiplash. He can’t seem to make up his mind exactly what point he’s trying to make. The untraditional family stand-ins in for children with disabilities, transgender persons, and mixed race families and more before moving on to a vague “you be you.” Any one of these statements could have been profound if followed through with conviction. Together they come up as ideological ambrosia salad. And that’s before adding multiple snide asides about home schooling, ambitious local politicians, and online MBAs.
The cleverer sections of the work are hindered by the direction of Audrey Alford who, with the help of scenic designer Ann Beyersdorfer, manages to ensure that every seat in the house becomes partial obstructed view. Audience heads throughout the theater are constantly jostling for a position around the pillars, down to the floor, and over to a critical stage piece on the side. I missed several important visual cues because they were not in my line of sight. This is fairly inexcusable given the the current configuration of the theater is about 60 seats.
Ms. Alford has also made some curious casting choices. At the performance I attend, young Max is played by 20-something Kelley Selznick, a talented puppeteer, but not particularly gifted actress. Max’s mother, Mary Ann Myers, is played by Jason Allan Kennedy George making his theatrical debut. He’s fine in the role, but I found the selection of a tall male for the part a distraction from what more obviously makes Mary Ann different from other members of the PTA. It is also hard to figure out how Max would find comfort with Miss Terry, played at a near-vibrating pitch by Jenn Remke. More successful is Brian Michael, striking all the right notes as Max’s father distraught father, Peter Myers. Breaking the tension with great timing is Jamie Geiger in the role of Principal Klaus. And of course there are the all-important puppets created by Puppet Kitchen Productions, close to blank canvases the better to project your own vision of what different means to you.
For lovers of live theater seeking an unconventional production, A Real Boy has enough artistry to make it worthy of the $25 ticket price. It is brought to 59E59 by Ms. Alford’s Ivy Theatre Company in association with Athena Theatre, which is known for it’s unorthodox psychologically-based dramas. Performances run through August 27. For tickets and information visit http://www.59e59.org/moreinfo.php?showid=293.