Badly Dated

Empty talk undercuts a serious subject in Boy Gets Girl.

I'm absolutely mystified by the weakness of this script. Playwright Rebecca Gilman has won awards and been praised in all the right places. Although it had problems, I rather liked her Spinning Into Butter, which was produced at the Denver Center a couple of years ago. ButBoy Gets Girlis limp and didactic, and it feels so dated that I wondered if Gilman had written it years ago as an undergraduate, perhaps after taking her first women's-studies class, then retrieved it from a drawer once she started making a name for herself.

Not that the subject matter is irrelevant or outdated. A confident and successful young writer, Theresa, connects with someone a friend has set her up with for a quick beer. She agrees to a dinner. By the time that meal comes to an awkward close, she realizes that she's not interested in Tony and lets him down as gently as she can. He displays some hurt, a sputter of indignation, and the mildly unpleasant but commonplace scene is over. Then flowers start arriving at Theresa's workplace, followed by phone messages that rapidly turn threatening.

Stalking is not uncommon; it affects about 8 percent of women and takes several forms: teenage boys obsessed with a popular girl at school, abusive husbands tracking down the wives who are trying to leave them, men who refuse to believe a relationship is over, or -- as in Boy Gets Girl-- a chance encounter that leads to a lifetime of fear. Over a decade ago, Rebecca Schaeffer, a young actress who starred in an innocuous TV sitcom, was fatally shot in her doorway by an obsessed fan.

Emily Paton Davies and Josh Hartwell in Boy Gets 
Girl.
Emily Paton Davies and Josh Hartwell in Boy Gets Girl.

So the premise of Boy Gets Girl is reasonable. But the other plot elements aren't. The characters are not characters at all, but simply actors who say things that Gilman wants said. They muse about whether the way romance is portrayed in the movies -- with the hero interrupting the heroine's wedding and carrying her off, for example -- doesn't encourage losers to stalk. Theresa beats herself up because as an undergraduate she once agreed to kiss a lonely old drunk; because she spent some time before her date with Tony deciding what to wear; because she was tentative in breaking up with him. It's that ingrained female niceness that's always getting us into trouble, she feels. As for the men, they're all guilty on some level. Fellow writer Mercer doesn't wear his wedding ring. Got his number. He also once wondered what it would be like to screw Theresa. And neither he nor Theresa's boss, Howard -- who was once married for seven years -- can figure out why there's a circled dot on her calendar for every month of the year.

Spinning Into Butterconcerned on-campus racism, and the primary pleasure it provided lay in Gilman's knowledgeable skewering of academia. She had a fine old time with the nervous, self-righteous posturings of the faculty and with the student who formed an anti-racist organization because he knew it would look good on his law school application. But nothing makes sense or coheres in the milieu of Boy Gets Girl.

Theresa works at a classy, intellectual magazine, perhaps modeled on Harper's or the New Yorker, which publishes articles on such topics as literary friendships, baseball and male-female relationships. The secretary is a dimwitted 21-year-old who'd be lucky to retain a job in the office of a used-car lot. At one point, Theresa interviews a film director for a profile. Although this man is a drooling pornographer who talks about nothing but women's breasts, he's apparently an important cult phenomenon. Stan Brakhage on Viagra? John Waters gone straight? No matter. Theresa turns on her tape recorder, pops open the notebook and proceeds to lecture him: "When a woman talks, a man just sees her mouth moving."

There's a small attempt at irony here. In a world where all men are guilty of some degree of pigginess, the one who seems piggiest of all turns out to be a kind and self-deprecating old soul with whom Theresa finds a few moments of forgetfulness watching Jeopardy. (That's after he's had his colon removed, though the script never tells us why.)

The cop Theresa calls in confesses mournfully that her parents sent her five brothers to college but wouldn't finance their only daughter's education because they expected her to get married. The bimbo secretary thinks a makeover and Mommy's credit card will cure whatever ails Theresa. A Denver Posteditor who has apparently been trawling literary magazines for a sports columnist tries to lure Theresa to Denver based on her article about the New York Yankees.

Most annoying is the assumption that stalking is just an intensification of society's general inhumanity toward women, part of the warp and woof of everyday sexism. There's obviously some connection, but stalking is a pathological act. Comparing it with a co-worker's idle moment of attraction weakens the horror and singularity of the phenomenon.

Josh Hartwell gives a wonderfully creepy performance in the first act as Tony, presenting him as a diffident, slightly shy young man, but with something just a little off-kilter about his personality. Emily Paton Davies, as Theresa, is good, too, especially in the scenes with Hartwell. The other actors strive manfully (oops!) with their roles, but the text keeps disintegrating in their hands like sodden Kleenex.

 
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