Sunday, August 6, 2017

52 (2017-2018): Review: A REAL BOY (seen August 4, 2017)

“Max Has Two Puppets”

Ever since the success of Leslie Newman’s 1989 children’s book Heather Has Two Mommies, the “two mommies” and “two daddies” trope has become a common feature of politically correct discussions regarding children being raised by parents with unconventional sexual orientations. Although he doesn’t mention such antecedents, playwright Stephen Kaplan has noted that his play, A Real Boy, was inspired by his experiences as a gay dad wondering whether the non-gay world would blame him and his partner if their child turned out gay.

Jenn Remke, Alexander Bello. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.
Rather than look at the issue realistically, Kaplan dramatizes it through the metaphor of a five-year-old boy, Max (eight-year-old Alexander Bello, sweet but inaudible), who has been adopted by puppets. Max, a student in the kindergarten class of devoted teacher Miss Terry (Jenn Remke, convincingly sincere in an unconvincing role), begins to show signs of being different from his classmates when he insists on coloring his pictures in black and white instead of other colors. Disturbed, Terry arranges a conference with Max’s parents, represented by puppets depicted as “a typical, suburban, white family.”

Further complicating the play’s identity issues is that the black-garbed actors (unlike one of the accompanying photos) manipulating the one-third human size puppets are African American. Brian Michael plays Peter Myers, Max’s argumentative dad, and Jason Allan Kennedy George is Mary Ann, the boy’s reticent, sympathetic, and ambivalent mom. And, while I don’t know anything about George’s personal life, he gives the mother a transsexual twist, obviously in keeping with Kaplan’s requirement that the parents be “non-traditional.”
Jamie Geiger, Jenn Remke. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.
All this trouble is taken to dramatize a situation that evolves when the parents take issue with Terry’s concerns. A major conflict erupts in which Principal Klaus (Jamie Geiger, appropriately flustered) gets involved, with the parents demanding that Max be moved to another class. Things get even more bizarre when Max starts growing strings, implying he’s becoming a puppet himself. (And yes, there’s a Pinocchio-related subplot as well.) Feeling the need to protect him, Terry takes Max hostage, keeping his parents at bay by using the classroom as a sanctuary.

Soon we have a battle royale between the parents and the educational system, with arguments swirling around issues of parental versus educators’ responsibility for the raising of children. Brought in to supplement the debate are two broadly pompous caricatures; one is a fancy lawyer named Jilly Lambert (Katie Braden), with an infant strapped to her chest, fighting to reclaim the “kidnapped” child; the other is a vociferous congresswoman (or, as she prefers, “congressperson”), Rebecca Landel (Danie Steel), supporting the teacher as someone representing “the backbone of our nation.”

Each seems more interested in exploiting the situation for their own aggrandizement than for what they claim to be advocating, a development that takes this already weird play into even more confusing waters. Director Audrey Alford allows them—especially the congressperson—to go over-the-top and the actresses are up to the task.
Jason Alan Kennedy George, Jamie Geiger. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.
Despite the presence of puppets and their handlers as principal characters, this really isn’t a puppet play; moreover, the puppets themselves (created by Puppet Kitchen Productions, Inc.), for all their articulation, are extremely klutzy. And, while Michael and George, the otherwise fine actors controlling them, speak their lines effectively, they aren’t particularly adept puppeteers.It doesn't take long before you forget the awkward puppets and focus on their handlers instead.

Working in the production’s cramped confines, they struggle to stay out of each other’s way without tangling their strings, a problem that becomes especially obvious when they perform in the constricted space at one side representing the Myers’s home, with its miniature table and appliances. Add another actor to these scenes and it’s like being on the Lexington Express at 6:00 p.m.
Brian Michael. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.
The rest of Ann Beyersdorfer’s set, with the audience sitting on two sides of it, represents a kindergarten classroom. My companion, however, a kindergarten and pre-K teacher for over 30 years, says kindergarten classrooms no longer look like this one, which more closely resembles pre-K.

Nevertheless, this is the least of A Real Boy’s problems. Those begin with an hour-and-50-minute, jumbled, overwritten script that clouds whatever issues it’s trying to address with so many fantastical and thinly satiric distractions that you’re never quite sure just what it wants to say, which arguments you should favor, or just what those arguments are.


59E59 Theaters/Theater C
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through August 27