It's only about five minutes into pseudonymic playwright Jane Martin's 2001 drama "Good Boys" that acute feelings of deja vu begin to set in. Even before the play begins, we note that Carey Wong's park bench setting bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Edward Albee's 1958 one-act "Zoo Story", while during the course of the 75 minute piece there are constant reminders of thematic and structural influences; everything from Shakespeare and O'Neill, to David Rabe and William Mastrosimone. And it is this very familiarity, this nagging sense that we've seen it all before that deflates what would be an obviously topical, but no less dramatically compelling story.
Martin (widely reputed to be the nom de plume of director Jon Jory) has mined similar thematic territory before (most notably 1994's "Keely & Du"), and "Good Boys" appears to be a continuation of her exploration into the nature of forgiveness. But, on a number of levels the play feels as though it is either too close in time to the events which it depicts to provide a truly objective perspective, or else not far enough distant from them to allow the story to take on a more universal quality. The result is that while "Good Boys" is certainly compelling due to the strong performances from its two leads, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, and Jeffrey Hayenga, there's little else in the way of new insight or observations on the issues and themes portrayed to recommend it.
"Good Boys" tells the story of two men attempting to face down the demons that have plagued them since a school massacre eight years prior, in which ones son was a victim, and the others the perpetrator. James Erskine (Hayenga), whose son Ethan (Michael Scott) killed a number of his classmates before committing suicide, has been completely devastated by the tragedy. Retreating both physically and emotionally from the media spotlight and his own feelings of guilt, he now ekes out a marginal existence as a used-car salesman in Atlanta. While drinking his lunch in a rundown park, he encounters Thomas Thurman (Byrd), a minister whose son Marcus (Dennis Mosely) was one of shooting victims. He's tracked down Erskine to try to convince him to come back with him to seek forgiveness from his congregation, in the hopes this act of contrition will somehow provide a catalyst to assuage his own turmoil. As the two engage in what is often a gripping and emotionally charged sparring match, the two dead sons appear in flashbacks, as well as from beyond the grave to add context and commentary.
It's an old device (used to better effect in another post-Columbine play, Mastrosimone's "Bang, Bang - You're Dead") that tends to disrupt the flow of the much more interesting interplay between the two men. Despite Martin's occasionally bracing dialogue, and Jory's ability to gradually wind up the tension between the characters, the audience is constantly pulled out of the moment, forcing Hayenga and Byrd to lose momentum, and start afresh each time. This is made even more problematic since the interruptions don't really tell us anything we can't already surmise from the initial scenes (Erskine was a physically abusive, emotionally distant father; Ethan was introverted, anti-social and resentful at being picked on by the popular Marcus), which are further dragged down because Martin so clearly delineates the fathers' respective points-of-view, leaving little or no room for the conflict between the two men to develop organically. In addition, characters of the sons are so superficially drawn as to render Scott and Mosley's otherwise serviceable performances almost irrelevant.
Fortunately, Martin has paid much greater attention to the characters of the two grieving fathers, and when Jory follows through on exploring the interplay between their damaged psyches, Hayenga and Byrd give poignantly revealing performances, their verbal pugilism bristling with unrequited guilt and recrimination. But beneath it all is an underlying desire to understand, to make sense of a senseless act. Byrd's Thurman carries himself with a boundless, undirected energy, as if his obsessive need for atonement has taken over his body like palsy. Hayenga for his part, contrasts this with the near comatose stillness of a man crushed beneath an unendurable weight, but who over the course of the play gradually finds strength of purpose, even if only to defend himself against Thurman's relentless prodding. It's a dialectical punch-out, with each trying to pound the other into submission. In execution it is grueling, at times even painful to watch, but it also becomes the saving grace of "Good Boys", elevating it above typical exploitive TV movie-of-the-week fare, and ultimately making for a dramatically intriguing study of two men locked in an existential conflict; on the one hand desiring to destroy the other's most closely guarded beliefs, but also complicated by a desperate need to justify their own.
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