“Boys’ Life” opens with a white T-shirt and a pair of undies, as Don (Nathan Wornian) stands in a state of undress with his two college buddies, Jack (Tim Moore) and Phil (Denny Le). It’s an intimate opening for a surprisingly intimate play, which explores how the three 20-somethings fumble their way through the reality of adulthood in the 1980s and what it means to be a man.
The UW’s Glenn Hughes Penthouse Theatre is the perfect venue for such an introspective ambience. The auditorium is comfortably small with seats circling the entire stage. Even the back row is shockingly close, and it feels as if the actors are speaking directly to you, even when their backs are facing you.
“Boys’ Life” excels when lighthearted moments suddenly turn dark and bitterly real. From the moment the play begins, the audience is pulled in by the sense of desperation to be a man and the undercurrent of shame. “Nobody’s happy,” Phil says early on. It’s certainly a theme that echoes through the play, as each character struggles to achieve their own pinnacle of masculinity.
To an extent, each of the three characters are caricatures of young adult men. As soon as the leads take the stage, they perfectly convey their characters’ personalities. Even as revelations add depth to the leads, you can’t help but feel like you understand each character absolutely, perhaps even better than they understand themselves. The play itself is heavily character-driven, and the static nature of Phil and Jack is wonderfully contrasted by the building change in Don.
The lead actors, all UW undergraduate students, delivered the lines not only flawlessly, but with impeccable timing. The rapid-fire, often-emotional dialogue is just as vulnerable as it is powerful. While each actor nails his character, Moore in particular stands out as a cynical, manipulative man hanging on to the ideals of manhood.
While the story revolves around these three men, the women who move in and out of their lives often provide the tension needed to keep the story moving. Due to the unwavering personalities of Don, Jack, and Phil, it’s easy to predict how they react. Instead, what keeps the audience focused is how the women respond to them. In one scene, Grace Nguyen steals the whole show as a one-night stand. It’s not called “Boys’ Life” for nothing, but it’s the girls’ lives that keep the play interesting.
The audience is rotated through succinct moments in Don, Jack, and Phil’s lives. Each scene is transitioned with snapshots of the boys rough-housing, wolf-whistling, and chasing after women to the tune of ’80s earworms as spectacular light work gives the scene a dreamy ambience. If you ever wanted to hear U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” used to represent a growing sense of adulthood, than look no further.
Because the play is set in the ’80s, many of the jokes are direct references to the time period. While older audience members laughed heartily, the jokes whooshed over the heads of younger audience members. The clothes are far more recognizable; the baggy suits, extreme hair, and wild dresses create a distinct and compelling setting without seeming overdone.
Director Valerie Curtis-Newton organizes the postmodern play deftly. The plot takes a backseat to the development of characters, but the tension between characters keeps things interesting. Without giving away spoilers, true to postmodern plays, there’s no neat conclusion. Those looking for a lively, plot-driven play might want to search elsewhere. The play begins and ends suddenly, and many questions are purposefully left for the audience to ponder later on their own.
A quick warning though, the play is in line with ’80s culture climate, not our own. That means certain inappropriate terms, sexism, and mentions of sexual abuse run rampant, though none are displayed in a truly positive light.
“Boys’ Life” runs from May 27 until June 7, starting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. for the Sunday matinee. Tickets are $10 for students and $18 for the general public. There is a post-show talk June 4.
The verdict: More dark than funny, but if you’re looking for a postmodern play that explores the messy reality of masculinity, or just love the ’80s, “Boys’ Life” absolutely brings it.
Reach contributing writer Emma Bueren at email@example.com. Twitter: @EmBueren