NEW YORK (AP) — Even with the best of intentions, sometimes offering advice to help a friend can backfire. Badly.
That's the premise gradually revealed in "The Old Boy," a 1991 play by A.R. Gurney about a politician who stops by his New England prep school alma mater to give a commencement speech, and learns he may have inadvertently contributed to the death of a good friend.
A newly-revised version by Gurney, author of popular plays including "Love Letters," ''Sylvia" and "The Dining Room," opened Tuesday night off-Broadway, presented by Keen Company at The Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row. The Keen production is well-acted, although the material is somewhat dated: Homosexuality is preferred by polite society to remain closeted, the specter of AIDS is not even mentionable, and the word "preppy" is still in vogue.
Set in the early 1990s, with flashbacks to the late 1960s, the play is well-staged by Keen artistic director Jonathan Silverstein. He's done his best to liven things up, creating an undercurrent of suspense and some dynamic interactions.
Peter Rini projects affability and decency as Sam, a State Department official. Considering running for governor, he's confused his aide by interrupting his series of high-profile campaign events to make the commencement speech. Asked why, Sam answers vaguely, "There's something here I missed, or lost or need."
Cary Donaldson portrays Bud, his admiring and loyal aide, wearing the efficient, slightly harried attitude of a political operative. Sam's now-deceased friend, Perry, is portrayed with youthful earnestness and likeability by Chris Dwan. The duo are shown together in their youth, when Sam was assigned to be Perry's "old boy" or mentor, a tradition at the elite school. Rini also plays Sam's youthful self, exuding a bland, naive, open-faced acceptance of the status quo,
The commencement weekend — and the play — are enlivened by a bickering mother- and daughter-in-law. Laura Esterman is imperious and condescending in both eras as Harriet, Perry's controlling mother. Marsha Dietlein Bennett is sarcastic and pensive as Perry's widow, Alison. The cast is rounded out by Tom Riis Farrell, pleasantly authoritative yet also contemplative as Dexter, the Episcopal minister who's been running the school for 30 years.
Sam's youthful breezy and bigoted attitude toward Perry's real struggle with his sexual identity contrasts greatly with the unlikely ending to the play, in which Sam more or less falls on his political sword trying to make up for his careless ignorance. But his speech is both controversial and flat, as he clumsily encourages graduates to "be aware that most people have special qualities which should be encouraged, not denied."
Typical of the self-satisfied attitude of the privileged, stodgy WASPs that Gurney often dissects is the school's lackluster slogan, "No boy leaves here unimproved." Whether that "improvement" is really good for them in their lives ahead is another matter.