Jenn Remke makes her entrance in Stephen Kaplan’s A Real Boy like a desperate and tyrannical woman on a mission. Remke plays an impassioned kindergarten teacher named Miss Terry, and she shares her first scene with Jamie Geiger, who is cast as the school principal. Miss Terry tells the principal that she is disturbed because a boy in her class, Max Myers, refuses to use the available colored crayons (he draws only in black-and-white), a sign, in her thinking, that indicates a troubled home life.
In the second scene of A Real Boy, Miss Terry meets with Max’s parents, and it becomes almost immediately apparent that we are dealing with a hilariously simplistic play that wants to function as a strained allegory about learning to tolerate difference. For Max’s parents are, literally, puppets. As operated by Brian Michael and Jason Allan Kennedy George, Peter and Mary Ann Myers are rather woebegone adoptive puppet-parents whose hair seems to have been made out of wet paper towels from the restroom.
Maybe theatergoers have been spoiled by the expert puppet play in productions like Avenue Q and Hand to God, but the marionette work here is so tentative that it feels like both Michael and George have been plunged into their task without adequate training or rehearsal time. Yet even the most skilled puppeteers could not have convincingly carried off a scene where the enraged puppet-father physically attacks the controlling Miss Terry and then collapses in a heap from exhaustion. This small, fragile-looking puppet keeps coming at her and coming at her until even the most earnest audience members may have to stifle their laughter. And this isn’t the only puppet attack in A Real Boy.
In the second act, Miss Terry keeps Max at school and refuses to let him leave. Geiger’s principal then goes to the Myers household and masochistically allows himself to be hit again and again by the despairing Peter. The effect is sidesplitting, but Geiger also displays a touching actorly dignity as he submits to this puppet beatdown. After all, sometimes it does come to this; allegorically speaking, in all of our working lives there arrives a point when we have to just stand there and get assaulted by a puppet.
The role of Max Myers is alternated by Alexander Bello, an eight-year-old boy, and Kelley Selznick, a young woman with a close-cropped haircut. Selznick played Max at the performance I saw, and she looked invariably sad as her character somehow grew a pair of puppet strings, and then got them cut off, and then learned how to tie them back on — all of which happens in quick succession toward the end of the play. In the midst of this bewildering whack-a-mole symbolism, Danie Steel gives a snazzy sketch-comedy performance as a crooked politician who exploits the situation for publicity, and Remke holds firm to her characterization of Miss Terry, acting throughout as if she is in a serious play. To her credit, there are times when Remke makes A Real Boy feel somewhat close to serious, and that is a tribute to what truly committed acting can do.
A Real Boy
59 East 59th Street
Through August 27