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The hot-button issue of transgender sexual identity is explored to sometimes moving but more often clunky dramatic effect in Anna Ziegler’s new play. Inspired by a true-life case, Boy tells the story of Adam (Bobby Steggert), a 22-year-old man who was born male but raised as a female after a botched circumcision destroyed his penis. Unable to embrace a sexuality for which nature had not intended him, he eventually reclaims his masculinity, but not without suffering emotional turmoil both before and after.
Ziegler, whose similarly science-inspired play Photograph 51 was recently seen in a West End production starring Nicole Kidman, here takes a delicate, restrained approach to her provocative subject matter. Running a mere 90 minutes, the play seems reluctant to delve too deeply into the myriad complexities of its main character’s plight, spending much of its running time on Adam’s awkward courtship of Jenny (Rebecca Rittenhouse), a young single mother struggling to raise her 4-year-old son.
Taking place between 1969 and 1990, the play toggles back and forth between flashbacks depicting Adam’s troubled formative years as “Samantha,” under the guidance of his ambitious doctor (Paul Niebanck), and his current relationship with Jenny, which inevitably has its pitfalls since his private parts don’t work and he’s unwilling to reveal his secret.
Adam’s childhood angst is expressed in the encounters between him and the doctor, with Steggert playing the female child-to-adolescent with modest variation in his physical demeanor or vocal delivery. Despite such explanatory projected information as the year in which the scenes take place and Samantha’s age at the time, the results are often confusing. And although we get occasional moments such as when Samantha confesses that she wants to be like her hero Luke Skywalker, their dramatic effect is lessened by being related only in the form of conversations with the doctor.
Her parents (Heidi Armbruster, Ted Koch) become increasingly distraught at their daughter’s unhappiness, lashing out at the self-centered doctor who repeatedly assures them that she’s simply going through a “rough patch,” even while he’s obviously desperate to have the experiment on which he’s based his reputation be a success. He also displays an unhealthy obsession with his patient that seems to go far beyond scientific interest.
The nature vs. nurture debate is a fascinating one, and despite examples like the situation on which the play is based, it continues to this day. But Boy fails to wrestle with the issue successfully, too often content to tell rather than show. There are more than a few scenes that don’t ring quite true, and others that resolve things in too pat a fashion, such as when Adam’s relationship problem is quickly fixed via some fatherly advice delivered over cold beers. And the set featuring upside-down furniture suspended from the ceiling is too bluntly obvious in its metaphor.
Still, the play is moving in spots, thanks to the inherent pathos of the situation and Steggert’s deeply felt performance. Aided by his delicate, pretty features and physicality, the actor affectingly conveys Adam’s helpless confusion through the years, making us care deeply about his plight. When, at the end, the character achieves a modicum of peace and a chance for happiness, you won’t be thinking about gender. You’ll be thinking about humanity.
Venue: Clurman Theatre, New York
Cast: Bobby Steggert, Rebecca Rittenhouse, Paul Niebanck, Heidi Armbruster, Ted Koch
Playwright: Anna Ziegler
Director: Linsay Firman
Set designer: Sandra Goldmark
Costume designer: Sydney Maresca
Lighting designer: Nick Francone
Music & sound designer: Shane Rettig
Presented by the Keen Company, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
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