by Ed Malin · July 20, 2015
In the words of Joseph Conrad, “Being a woman is a terribly difficult task, since it consists principally in dealing with men.”
Penny Jackson’s I Know What Boys Want is currently being brought to life by Ego Actus (Joan Kane, director) at Theatre Row. The towering, multi-level set (designed by David Goldstein) brings us into the two-faced world of a prep school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It’s a place where college-bound students Vicky (Olivia Scott) and Roger (Alex Esola) are filmed having sex, but the consequences of such footage going viral on the internet hurt Vicky most. Jackson’s experience as a teacher, Young Adult author and concerned parent are evident in this tech-savvy staging of the show.
A whole school full of uniformed, precious backstabbers are tuned in to their smartphones to watch snippets of the sex tape which the vengeful Oliver (Jesse Shane Bronstein) created at a recent party. Vicky was drunk, high and largely unresponsive when this compromising footage was captured , and it is only Oliver’s hurt pride and a complex network of unconcerned men in power that allow him to comport himself like a Sith lord in training. Vicky and her mother (Lué McWilliams) are smeared by the school administration, underserved by their lawyer, and ignored by Vicky’s father, who has moved on to a new, hot, 25 year-old yoga instructor wife. This is a world where men abuse their authority, and within its confines Roger and Oliver go way back. Their fathers as well as the headmaster are buddies, and even though Oliver’s father is in jail for causing insecurity in the stock market, the bonds are strong. Tellingly, women who speak out against the power structure in the world of the Upper East Side are marginalized. Hannah (Charlotte Frøyland), an outsider in the school, is about the only person who will still speak to Vicky. Lin (Kelsey Wang) likes Vicky but her parents have forbidden the two to meet. Ted (Alexander Nifong), a transfer from California for whom Roger is student orientation big brother, is not desensitized enough to go along with the local madness. Instead of following Vicky around trying to film more emotionally compromising footage (when you’re a Prep you’re a Prep all the way?), he calls Roger out on his continued association with a scoundrel like Oliver. Maybe it’s this awkward truthfulness that endears Ted to Hannah. But Oliver’s unrequited lust for Vicky and malnourished ego may provide the secret path to inoculate him with human-kindness.
This play asks difficult questions and, if you’re in any way involved in bringing up a child, should make you scared for their future. Jackson’s right, the internet is place where amoral things can be thoughtlessly posted and will never go away. Why won’t the school administration just say that non-consensual sex video posting is evil and should be immediately remedied? Many real-life tragedies are happening because of such defamation of character. Do boys really want to see heartless exploitation 24/7? I’m glad there’s at least one character in the play who doesn’t. What exactly is pathetic about a middle-aged divorced single mother? Even if Vicky overcomes these obstacles and gets into Brown, will the sex tape perhaps surface in ten years and ruin her career?
The youthful cast (also including Phoebe Torres, Lore Lusted, Meghan St. Thomas, Joshua Spencer and Molly Collier) convincingly create the sinister atmosphere of an elite school. Joan Kane’s direction highlights the cowardly, victim-blaming mentality, which extends to Ted’s gay father and any other easy target of tweeting. Al Foote III’s fight choreography takes the show out of the orbit of the after school special. Jim Marlowe’s projection design brings the internet into the play as a supporting character. Andy Evan Cohen’s sound design adds extra non-human musical tension. Dennis Parichy’s lighting brings us through despair but leaves some hope alive.