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A CurtainUp Review
The Dear Boy

What do you regard as most humane? To spare someone shame. ---Frederich Nietzche

Daniel Gerroll and T. Scott Cunningham  in The Dear Boy
Daniel Gerroll and T. Scott Cunningham (Photo: Richard Termine)
The premise that acceptance is the cure for shame in Dan O'Brien's new play The Dear Boy is never buried so deeply as to be undetectable. The main character, James Flanagan, is a neurotic high school English teacher with forty years in the classroom. Unwittingly referred to by colleagues as "Saint James", he is a wounded and despairing man facing the end of his career. He hides his shame behind lofty academic standards, a bizarre English/Irish mid-Atlantic speech affectation (despite being raised in the Bronx), and a muddy wardrobe of brown on brown. But what is plainly apprehensible need not be an impediment to an evening of fine theater, particularly when the drama is brought to life by such an overall first rate production directed by Michael John Garces.

The erupting conflict between Flanagan and his disturbed student, James Doyle, is the crucial test of Flanagan's humanity and the focal point of the play. The pattern of conflict, identification, and rescue is reminiscent of the relationship between the psychiatrist and his adolescent patient in Peter Shaffer's Equus. Despite these similarities, the afflictions of the characters are quite different. Since 1975, when Peter Shaffer was inspired by a newspaper story, the growing awareness of the life damaging consequences of child molestation undoubtedly has led Dan O'Brien to also borrow from the newspaper, although in a more general way. And as if to intensify the pain, the play is set in 1990, when victims were less likely to seek help than today.

Of the cast's four characters, there is only one with real depth, and that is Flanagan. The play is his story--his past, present, and opportunity for redemption. The other three characters, while useful in exposing and transforming Flanagan's story, as well as effectively pacing the play, are more or less stereotyped. It is likely that Flanagan's catty homosexual colleague, Richard Purdy, will offend some members of the audience. But just as Nathan Lane gets laughs with his shtick, T.Scott Cunningham, in the role of Richard Purdy, succeeds in entertaining the audience while being as offensive and trivializing as the regulars on "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy". Purdy's legitimate anger over prejudice directed against homosexual teachers leads to a drunken, emotional meltdown at an after work party. There, he simultaneously threatens to expose Flanagan's secret while possibly destroying his own career. In the context of 1990, the anguish of this character is a reminder of how AIDS stoked fears and prejudice, and how victims dealt with their shame. This is presumably at least one reason why Flanagan would have confided in Purdy, for their brotherhood is one of alienation.

Another character barely rising above stereotype, yet playing a pivotal role in the advancement of Flanagan's story, is his female colleague, the sexually compulsive Elise Sanger. Although her binging is no secret in the school, she does reveal a nearly life long secret fantasy to the embarrassed and disgusted Flanagan. It is a fantasy based on a shameful history and which serves as yet another mirror for Flanagan. Susan Pourfar's performance as Sanger more than compensates for the thinness of her character. Like Cunningham, she has a talent for comedic timing.

Dan McCabe, as the student, James Doyle, has so little to work with in the script that his character remains at best something of a dark mystery and at worst another prop for the development of Flanagan's persona. McCabe does about all he can with the role. No matter how slight or stereotyped Flanagan's colleagues and student are, they effectively keep the story moving towards the moment of crisis in a manner that is never boring, always economical, and at times highly entertaining.

With so much of the play's success riding on the ability of the actor portraying Flanagan, it is a pleasure to watch Daniel Gerroll's standout performance. He is believable in every scene and manages to transcend the limitations of the script in order to deliver the experience one hopes for in a serious drama. Regrettably, at times, his lines simply don't fit a character of his age, or they lack the subtle wisdom one would expect from an English teacher with 40 years of teaching experience. A young playwright, as Dan O'Brien is, gets a lot of help from an actor like Daniel Gerroll.

Playwright: Dan O'Brien
Directed by Michael John Garcés
Cast: T. Scott Cunningham (Richard Purdy) Daniel Gerroll (James Flanagan) Dan McCabe (James Doyle) Susan Pourfar (Elise Sanger)
Set Design: Wilson Chin
Costume Design: Amela Baksic
Lighting Design: Ben Stanton
Sound Design: Sunil Rajan
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.
Second Stage Theater Uptown, Broadway at 76th Street, (212) 246-4422,
From 8/1/05 to 8/27/05; opening 8/8/05
Tickets: $30; $20 Students advance; $10 Student RUSH
Reviewed by Eric Beckson based on August 5th press performance
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