Directed by Joan Kane
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
It is difficult to identify the real antagonist in Penny Jackson’s new play “I Know What Boys Want” running at the WorkShop Theater through April 13. The conflicts are as numerous and entangled as the over-the-top tangle of cell phones dangling from the “ceiling” of the set. The main conflict which drives the predominant plot is between Vicky Walker (Sara Hogrefe) and, oddly enough, a cell phone: she needs to confiscate the cell phone of Oliver (Nick Vennekotter) who surreptitiously filmed Vicky in a compromising sexual tryst with her beau Roger (Liam Rhodes). It is not clear (and it needs to be less ambiguous) whether the act was consensual or not and whether in fact a date rape drug was used. These are significant details – not to be used to lay blame but to identify the precise sources of Vicky’s understandable and appropriate rage against Oliver and Roger.
There are also conflicts in the play between Vicky and her mother Margaret Walker (Dara O’Brien), her father, her stepmother, the world, and herself. These drive interesting sub plots but sometimes inadvertently detract from the main conflict involving how Vicky can restore her reputation. And these sub plots spin themes which remain unresolved: has bad parenting somehow contributed to Vicky’s situation and has Vicky’s mother’s fuzzy understanding of feminism resulted in an exacerbation of that less-than-admirable parenting? Who is Emma (Kimberly Diamond) and is her character really needed?
None of this detracts from the play’s importance in raising the issues of bullying, date rape, and the pandemic misuse of social media in the lives of teenagers. Whether or not Vicky should have had sex with her boyfriend is not the point: that is her choice and her responsibility. The point is Roger should not have allowed Oliver to tape the tryst and – out of revenge – post the clips on the internet. Vicky will have to struggle the rest of her life against the images that will remain of and re-surface on the internet for years to come. Such abuse can result in suicide and there is a reference in the script to the suicide Tyler Clementi the 18 year-old Rutgers who jumped off the George Washington Bridge in 2010.
One only wishes that Vicky’s bravery would have surfaced earlier and not been diluted in a mire of victimization. One also wishes the issues of parenting would have been clearer: how does parenting affect children’s behavior? Vicky and her roommate Lin Chang (Janice Amano) seem to long for more structure and better role models. But is Lin’s mother’s addiction to Xanax an excuse for Lin’s dependence on drugs and her lack of interest in academic excellence? Is Vicky’s mother’s self-absorption responsible for Vicky’s problems as a young adult?
Most of the performances given by the ensemble cast are adequate and serve the script well. Two performances stand out: the engaging and believable performances of Lauren D. Salvo as Hannah and Teddy Lytle as Ted serve collectively as a Super Ego for the rest of the teens. Both of these California transplants are bullied by their peers because they are “different.” Hannah sports a yellow rain slicker and yellow rain boots and her single mom is a neurosurgeon and Ted’s father has recently come out, left his wife, and formed a relationship with his male partner. If the entire cast could have reached the authentic level of performance of these two young actors, “I Know What Boys Want” would already be at a different level.
Joan Kane’s direction is adequate but uninspired. Perhaps she needs to spend more time around high school students, particularly wealthy and privileged high school students. The bullying that occurs – and there is a significant amount of bullying in this play – would be in real life much more aggressive and horrific. Ms. Kane’s characters need a rougher edge and a darker side. Although Oliver is a despicable human being, in reality such a person would be cruel to the point of exhaustion. When directorial and performance issues are addressed, this new play has a good chance of an extended life beyond its current run. Penny Jackson has developed an important script and her new play deserves an appreciative look in its current incarnation at the WorkShop Theater.