Friday, March 10, 2017

148. Review: ALL THE FINE BOYS (seen March 8, 2017)

“Too Good-Looking to Be Bad”

All the Fine Boys, written and directed for the New Group by Erica Schmidt, offers a creepy twist on the familiar sexual coming-of-age story: once again we’re watching teenagers struggling to come to terms with their physical changes, raging hormones, rebellious tendencies, and family frictions. The twist, though, takes us into territory more memorably explored in the 1985 movie Sweet Talk, with Laura Dern and Treat Williams, albeit with a dose of Ted Bundy added for good measure.
Isabelle Furhman, Abigail Breslin. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Set in a provincial, pious, small town in South Carolina (although no one uses a local accent), the intermissionless, 100-minute play introduces two archetypal 14-year-old girls, Jenny (Abigail Breslin, Academy Award nominee for Little Miss Sunshine) and Emily (Isabelle Fuhrman), who arrived in town a year earlier. The episodic plot follows the course of these middle schoolers’ romantic-sexual experiences over the course of three months in the late 80s (cue the pop tunes of the day, courtesy of Bart Fasbender’s sound design), with a coda taking place around a year later.

All the scenes, no matter where they occur, take place in the same nondescript room (efficiently designed by Amy Rubin and lit by Jeff Croiter) with a couch, TV set, and gray-carpeted walls and floor. An upstage door opens on a hallway or toilet, as needed. When scenes end, a character from the previous scene sometimes remains on stage for a few seconds, exiting only after someone in the new scene enters, a device that can be distracting, especially when the previous scene’s props remain in view.

The action begins in Emily’s basement, where the girls are cozying up with junk food (Pringles get consumed by the truckload) as they deliver rapid-fire teen talk about their bodies (those growing boobs!), sexual matters, and their dreams; they play a game of truth or dare and choose which horror movie—major foreshadowing here—they should watch from a pile of VHS videos.
Isabelle Furhman, Alex Wolff. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Emily has a crush on the smart, popular, 17-year-old Adam (Alex Wolff, a good actor in the wrong role), star of the high school play, while the ultra-naïve Jenny foolishly runs off with Joseph (Joe Tippett, as excellent as ever), a handsome, button-down, churchgoing, nuclear technician of 28; spoiler alert: he’s also married.
Abigail Breslin, Joe Tippett. Photo: Monique Carboni.
All the Fine Boys observes the different outcomes of each relationship. Emily’s romance with the cool, self-consciously artistic-intellectual, but (unconvincingly) honorable Adam, comes off as a formulaic contrast to Jenny’s with a much older man who, try as he might, can’t help but take advantage of a vulnerable girl. Jenny hasn’t a clue as to how to navigate the shoals threatening to drown her, or even that a threat exists. She even tells him he's "too good-looking to be bad." And why this particular guy, pedophile or not, should have chosen this particular girl remains an unanswered question.

Their sex scene, in which Jenny behaves much as if she were looking away while getting an injection, her focus being more on a half-eaten slice of pizza than on the loss of her virginity, is uncomfortable to watch. Like a somewhat milder encounter between Adam and Emily, it also illustrates the difficulty in casting such roles. The actors playing teenagers are all young adults, which makes them seem too old for their parts; on the other hand, some of the business performed, simulated or not, is probably illegal for age-appropriate actors. Fuhrman and Breslin do a decent job at playing younger, but the obstacle remains.

Apart from the opening sleepover scene, and a phone call imagining them in separate places, the girls aren’t seen together afterward to discuss their respective experiences, a problem that nags at the developing action when you realize how natural it would be for them to regularly reach out to a BFF, even before the availability of cell phones and texting. 

How Joseph could stay with the inane Abigail for five minutes much less several days is a major puzzlement. After all, we have no reason to believe he's a serial pedophile. This becomes harder to swallow as her childishness increases and he finds himself threatened by it. Nonetheless, while his resolution of what quickly becomes an untenable situation may seem more contrived than organic, it can’t be denied that even reasonable people do unreasonable things when the pressure grows too intense.
All the Fine Boys is the second recent play to explore the problem of pedophilia, the other being Kid Victory. I hope this won’t trend as a dramatic subject, the way Alzheimer’s has, unless, of course, something as good as Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive can be made from it.


The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through March 26