Plays grow from motives in the playwright’s mind, and one can’t help thinking that something unpleasant connected with the Boy Scouts of America must have happened to Thomas Higgins, author of Wild Animals You Should Know (Lortel Theatre). I don’t claim to know anything about Higgins’s life. But he has taken an anecdote that might have much greater resonance if explored in a wider context, and has left it so tightly confined inside a small, and not always convincing, narrative, that it remains, at best, only an anecdote, though a rather more interesting one than is usual in today’s slice-it-thin theater.
Matthew (Jay Armstrong Johnson), a handsome teen star in his suburban high school crowd, gets nowhere with his girlfriend but eases his tensions by showing himself off, via Skype, to his openly gay best buddy, Jacob (Gideon Glick). One night, he notices, at a neighboring window, another possible observer, whom he recognizes as the local scoutmaster, Rodney (John Behlmann). For motives as murky and confused as teenagers’ motives generally are, he sets out to trap the rigorously distant Rodney into revealing himself.
Cut to the other half of the story: Matthew’s father, Walter (Patrick Breen), has lost his job as a corporate consultant. While he’s deciding what to do next, his over-helpful wife, Marsha (Alice Ripley), volunteers him to take the Scout troop on a weekend camping trip with Rodney and a local boozehound whom Walter despises, Larry (Daniel Stewart Sherman). Things get messy in the woods. Matthew gets excessive; Walter gets drunk; Rodney gets revealed and quits the Scouts, occasioning suspicion and scandal. Walter, trying to put things right, finally confronts his son’s problems and his own.
It’s all terribly tidy. You learn little about what goes on in this community or, apart from the obvious, within these people. Despite the up-to-date electronic devices, the story seems to take place in some earlier time, when losing a corporate job was still shaming, and a self-aware gay man who loved bonding with nature might conceivably contemplate leading a Boy Scout troop. Trip Cullman’s smooth, speedy production supplies apt performances, with Breen and Behlmann exceptionally fine. But Higgins’s anecdotal tautness seems to have omitted most of his story’s meaning. Instead, the play’s sense of life seems to begin and end with the Boy Scouts. No merit badges for that.