Saturday, November 5, 2022

"The Boys Room" at Gremlin Theatre

It's been nearly three years since Gremlin Theatre's last production (the dark comedy Becky Shaw in January 2020). They've of course hosted other theater companies in their Midway St. Paul space in that time (including a few outdoor productions in summer 2020). But now they're back with the family dramedy The Boys Room, which premiered at Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater a little over ten years ago. A stellar four-person cast brings this family, that puts the fun in dysfunctional, to such vivid life that it's a bit startling when it ends after 90 short minutes, with nothing really resolved, but a whole lot exposed. None of these characters are very likeable, but the actors are as they make these people, and the awkward situation they find themselves in, seem very real.

the boys in their room (Peter Christian Hansen and
Dan Hopman, photo by Alyssa Kristine Photograpy)
The play takes place over the course of one day. Susan's son Ron arrives in her kitchen and asks to stay for a few weeks because he's leaving his wife, which makes Susan's home a little crowded because her other son Tim has been living there for a few months after getting divorced and losing his job. Susan's all about tough love, but she relents and agrees to take Ron in once she hears his story. Apparently it's a two-bedroom house, because both brothers have to share their childhood bedroom, which is more than a little awkward when you're in your 40s. They're both in a state of arrested development and being in this situation makes them regress even more. They fight over who sleeps in which bed, they fight over drawer space, they have a literal pillow fight. But they also awkwardly try to comfort each other as Tim can't stop crying, and Ron struggles with the difficulties of living. They're both also at times infuriating; you want to tell them to just grow up and be there for their families, but it's not that easy for these two. We find out they're dealing with some childhood trauma due to the sudden death of their father when they were young, which may help explain the arrested development. When Ron's daughter Roann (named after her father, which she resents) shows up with some questions for Ron from her mom, it lead to an ugly confrontation. Susan comforts her granddaughter (no tough for her, only love) and vows to help her, but everyone's still in the same mess they were at the beginning. This was just one day in the life of this family that continues on after the play ends.

Susan (Linda Kelsey) with granddaughter Roann
(Lucy Farrell, photo by Alyssa Kristine Photograpy)
My favorite kind of play is the two-hander, and The Boys Room sometimes feels like one since it's comprised of several great two-person scenes with different pairings of the four characters. Director Brian Balcom keeps a nice pace, allowing the human moments to play out in their own time, with scene transitions providing a pause between each conversation, as the tension builds to an explosive moment. This terrific cast works together very well, and all are very natural, each one with moments of raw vulnerability as their characters' emotions are laid bare. Dan Hopman and Gremlin's Artistic Director Peter Christian Hansen play Ron and Tim, respectively, and have a great brotherly prickly chemistry. And even though the name of the play is The Boys Room, it's almost more about the women. Minnesota native Linda Kelsey spend about 30 years in L.A. appearing on a multitude of TV shows and movies (including The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spinoff, Lou Grant) before returning home to work on #TCTheater stages, and is always such a joy to watch. She makes Susan the grandma you wish you had and the mom you need, while still being her own person. Relative newcomer Lucy Farrell, a product of the U of M/Guthrie BFA program, more than holds her own against these three #TCTheater veterans, and I am officially declaring her "one to watch." Her portrayal of the hurting teenager Roann is so believable, and when Roann finally confronts her father and lets it all come out, it's absolutely heart-breaking.

the family meeting (photo by Alyssa Kristine Photography)
In Gremlin's intimate thrust stage space, you feel almost uncomfortably close to the drama. Half of the stage is the kitchen, the other half the bedroom, with a frame outline of a house joining them together. It's feels like a comfortable lived-in home, that maybe hasn't been updated in a few decades, including the short and narrow twin beds that the grown-up men barely fit in. The soft lighting aids with transitions and highlights emotional moments, and characters are dressed in realistic clothing appropriate to each character. (Set and lighting design by resident Technical Director Carl Schoenborn, costume and prop design by Sarah Bahr.)

This dysfunctional family dramedy (yes, there are moments of humor, particularly with the bickering brothers acting like children) speaks to the difficulties of being human and being in relationships with other humans, and the poor choices we sometimes make. One hopes one's family isn't this broken, but there are certainly relatable moments of brokenness as we're all just trying to do our best, for the most part, even if that sometimes isn't good enough for those around us. As you may have gathered The Boys Room is not exactly an uplifting play, but it is thoroughly enjoyable and engrossing, largely due to the talents of this cast in portraying the humanness of this story - the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Boys Room continues Thursdays through Sundays (plus one Monday night performance) through the end of the month. A great "dinner and a show" option is Lake Monster Brewing, in the same building as Gremlin (Vandalia Tower just off 94 and Vandalia Street), which has daily rotating food trucks (posted on their website). There's also a newish coffee bar and roastery in the tower, SK Coffee, that I need to check out next time I go to a matinee (they close at 4pm).