Theater archives

The Old Boy: A Straight Prep’s Gay Breakthrough


Sometimes a play’s very datedness becomes reason enough to revisit it—and to be heartened to live in world where that play’s concerns now seem almost foreign. A.R. Gurney penned The Old Boy in 1991, a time when it was an act of bravery for a candidate considering national office to speak frankly about homosexuality. You know that scene, occurring at the end of too many plays and movies, where a politician chucks a safe, staff-drafted speech and instead speaks hard truth from his heart? (Yes, “his” heart; it’s always a him.) Gurney’s go at this old standard centers on Sam (Peter Rini), one of his school-tie WASPs, in this case a politico on the rise invited to his prep-school alma mater to deliver a commencement address. Sam’s campaign manager (Cary Donaldson) hates the idea: In an America sick of George Bush the First, why draw attention to a potential governor’s privileged youth?

As he settles in for a weekend in the school’s “celebrity suite,” Sam learns that his old school chum Perry has died. That inspires a collision with Sam’s past—and flashbacks that demand Rini rapidly toggle between suave politico and horny, idealistic teenager. This being a play from ’91, and Perry (Chris Dwan) being a sensitive boy who rhapsodizes about opera, audiences will know the cause of his death before any character dare speak its name. In the scenes set in the ’60s, young Sam encourages “Fairy Perry” toward the masculine behavior that will endear him to his classmates and his mother, played with peppery élan by Laura Esterman. At one point, Sam’s disgust at the possibility of Perry’s being “a fag” builds to a quick, boyish fistfight. Perhaps the play would have felt more of-the-times last year, when The Washington Post revealed that a young Mitt Romney once administered a haircut by force to a schoolmate who dared to be different.

In the new production from Keen Company, Dwan is excellent as a young man compelled to hold everything that he is inside. That said, the coming-out in this drama is Sam’s—in the play’s early-’90s present, as he contemplates the botch that Perry made of the life that Sam had encouraged, Sam slowly accumulates the courage to accept homosexuality as a part of nature—and to speak publicly about it. Before that, still something of a horny kid, the adult Sam arranges a seduction of Alison (Marsha Dietlein Bennett), his school-days ex and Perry’s widow. That is a lengthy, difficult scene of wicked turns and revelations; this new production, directed by Jonathan Silverstein, doesn’t build to them smoothly, and some outbursts feel less like the laying bare of the characters’ hearts than goalposts the actors are rushing toward.

The air never tickles between those two, but it does between Rini and Dwan in the flashbacks. Donaldson is also strong as a not-too-curdled political cynic. He needles his candidate, drawing Rini’s fire and charm. Those characteristics also distinguish that inevitable climactic speech, in which an early ’90s prep school is exhorted to respect and encourage its own “Fairy Perry”s. The ending, while affecting, can’t help but feel different now than it must have in ’91. Instead of a wish for what the world could be, it now seems an announcement of all that it soon would. That alone warrants this encore production.