REVIEW: The Boys Room (Victory Gardens Theater)

  
  

Victory Gardens creates powerful portrait of family paralysis

  
  

Allison Torem and Mary Ann Thebus in Victory Gardens 'The Boys Room' by Joel Drake Johnson. Photo by Liz Lauren.

  
Victory Gardens Theater presents
   
The Boys Room
  
Written by Joel Drake Johnson
Directed by Sandy Shinner
at Victory Garden’s Biograph Theater, 4233 N. Lincoln (map)
through Feb 20  |  tickets: $35-$50  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Because the recession has foreclosed so many homes, a lot of “boomerang kids” have returned to the nest–to the confusion of parents who thought they’d seen the last of them. It’s even more poignant if, 30 years after they supposedly left home, two middle-aged guys have returned to the sender, so to speak. That’s the bittersweet case in The Boys Room, Joel Drake Johnson’s moving portrait of two stunted sons and their arrested development.

Steve Key and Joe Dempsey in 'The Boys Room' at Victory Gardens. Photo by Liz Lauren.A Victory Gardens Theater world premiere richly staged by Sandy Shinner, this 90-minute slice of loss exposes the longings of two brothers’ midlife crises. Then there are the women—a mother and a son’s daughter—who contend with the brothers’ dangerous nostalgia (or regression) for their safe, secure upstairs bedroom.

Sibling rivalry is only one of the reversions that become blasts from the past. Jobless and in a troubled marriage, Tim (Steve Key) is now curled up in his childhood bed by the window: There he reads “Jane Eyre” to help his daughter in her English class, then cries himself to sleep each night. To his rage, he’s soon joined by his older brother Ron (Joe Dempsey), a grizzled dentist who left his wife and daughter because he couldn’t deal with the former’s breast cancer. (You hear “This is MY room!” a lot here.)

The brothers’ “odd couple” obviously disrupt the peaceful life of their aging mother Susan (Mary Ann Thebus), who just wants to learn Spanish so she can enjoy her elderly Latino lover all the more. Her well-earned retirement has been disrupted by all the unpacked emotional baggage her “boys” have brought home along with a lot of laundry she refuses to do. (She compares Tim’s restlessness upstairs to having “a rat rustling in the room.”)

Enraged at her father’s desertion, Ron’s teenage daughter Roann (Allison Torem) has been sent by her mom to find out Ron’s plans for any future they can forge. It’s up to her grandmother to give 16-year-old Roann the strength to endure what her sons have yet to master. In her final speech she remembers how the death of their father almost destroyed the family but, if they got through that, then…

             
Steve Key, Mary Ann Thebus and Joe Dempsey in 'The Boys Room' by Joel Drake Johnson. Photo by Liz Lauren. Allison Torem and Mary Ann Thebus in Victory Gardens 'The Boys Room' by Joel Drake Johnson. Photo by Liz Lauren.

This is not your usual dysfunctional-family dark comedy where sitcom crises mount with the laugh track, only to have recriminations replaced by reconciliation. Johnson has a great ear for loud desperation and the self-sustaining logic of failure and the pitilessness of pity. There are no happy resolutions here, just simple survival. That makes this play far kinder to its audience’s collective intelligence than all the wishful thinking that makes for second-act hugs and unearned happy endings.

Shinner’s staging is equally grown-up. There’s obvious humor in two loser husbands turning back into whining boys, reenacting old games that made them feel safer and wanting mommy to make everything right. But Key’s Tim is far too damaged to be healed by memory-mongering, while Dempsey’s explosive Ron is paralyzed with self-loathing.

Forward facing where the men are sinking into a bogus boyhood, the women are far stronger souls. Thebus’ tough-loving Susan is a rich mix of resilience and resignation, unwilling to indulge this second childhood one second more than she needs to. Equally remarkable, Torem’s anguished adolescent conjures up all the collateral damage of broken homes and makes it as specific as a scream.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Steve Key and Joe Dempsey in Victory Garden's 'The Boys Room' by Joel Drake Johnson.  Photo by Liz Lauren.

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Chicago Theater – Best of 2008 (Chicago Sun-Times)

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 Hedy Weiss, theater-critic extraordinaire for the Chicago Sun-Times, has put together an excellent list of her 10 favorite plays of 2008.  Along with the list, Hedy notes the wonderful year Chicago theater has had on the national stage:

…this was the year that Steppenwolf Theatre picked up five Tony Awards for its Chicago-bred Broadway production of Tracy Letts‘ “August: Osage County” before the cast crossed the pond to remount the show at London’s National Theatre, and when the Chicago Shakespeare Theater was feted with the “Best Regional Theater” Tony.

Continuing:

But that was just the beginning. Next Theatre‘s production of the new musical “Adding Machine,” was hailed in its Off Broadway incarnation, with director David Cromer racking up plaudits for his work on that show, as well as for his revelatory revivals of “Our Town” (at the Hypocrites) and “Picnic” (at Writers’ Theatre). Profiles championed the work of incendiary playwright Neil LaBute to grand effect. Remy Bumppo earned laughs with its tale of financial chicanery in a revival of an Edwardian classic, “The Voysey Inheritance.” And director Sean Graney experimented boldy with productions of “The Threepenny Opera” and Marlowe‘s “Edward II.”

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Now here are Hedy Weiss’s favorite productions in 2008:

 

1. Caroline or Change  (Court Theatre)
by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori
Standouts: Charles Newell (director), Doug Peck (musical director); performances: Malcolm Durning, E.Faye Butler
     
2. Ruined  (Goodman Theatre)
by Lynn Nottage
Weiss comments: Worthy of a Pulitzer Prize, the play will soon move to New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club.
 
     
3. Gatz  (Elevator Repair Service Theatre)
by John Collins
 
     
4. Our Town  (The Hypocrites)
by Thornton Wilder
Standouts: David Cromer (director)
 
     
5. Requiem for a Heavyweight  (Shattered Globe)
by Rod Serling
Standouts: Lou Contey (director)
 
     
6. Amadeus  (Chicago Shakespeare)
by Peter Schaffer
Standouts: Gary Griffin (director), Daniel Ostling (set designer); performances: Robert Sella, Robbi Collier Sublett, Elizabeth Ledo, Lance Baker
 
     
7. As You Like It  (Writers’ Theatre)
by William Shakespeare
Standouts: William Brown (director), Performance: Larry Yando
 
     
8. Drowsy Chaperone  (Cadillac Palace Theater)
by Laura Wade
Standouts: Casey Nicholaw (director)
 
     
9. Around the World in 80 Days  (Lookingglass)
Standouts: Laura Eason (adaptor/director); Performances: Philip R. Smith, Kevin Douglas, Joe Dempsey, Ravi Batista, Anish Jethmalani, Ericka Ratcliff, Nick Sandys and Rom Barkhordar
 
     
10. Columbinus  (Raven Theatre)
by Stephen Karam and P.J. Paparelli
Standouts: Greg Kolack (director); Performances: Matthew Klingler and Jamie Abelson
 

To see the Hedy Weiss’s complete description and thoughts on her favorite plays, click here.