From the moment the lights go up on the Guild’s production of The Boys, you’re flung into the middle of a real-life family shouting match.
True to any family feud – with its cyclical arguing and gratuitous abuse – there’s a moment when the argument becomes more about arguing than what’s being argued.
And due to a directorial or scriptwriting decision to pump up the raw emotion, The Boys suffers from that same fate.
It’s an in-your-face spectacle of family dysfunction that doesn’t give the audience any reason to savour the pain it’s being put through.
Kris Elgaard’s play was written seven years ago, but the Guild’s production is its Canadian premiere.
Two sons, played by George Maratos and Jason Westover, return to their boyhood home after their father dies.
Their mother has long passed away due to reasons the audience will later discover, and a stepmother, played by Mary Sloan, has taken her place.
In a twist of fate destined to be explosive, the three of them share the latter part of an evening following the father’s funeral arguing in the boys’ old bedroom.
Donnie, Westover’s character, is a bullish and irrational brother who hurls abuse and unnecessary hurt toward Margaret, the unwelcome inheritor of his father’s home and possessions.
Des, played by Maratos, suffers from an unidentified mental illness and teeters between being used as a tool and exploding.
While Donnie and Margaret are often at odds, Des is the pawn in the middle. Whoever wins him, wins the day.
An emotional tug-of-war ensues for the next hour and a half – usually at 40 times the desired decibel level.
The result is a play that gets under your skin.
This isn’t an evening of cozy entertainment.
In what must be an exhausting role, Donnie is a non-stop freight train of selfish anger, the kind of person you love to hate.
Hopelessly angry at the world, he is duplicitous toward his naive brother, and unapologetic in his attacks on Margaret.
Des, who appears to suffer from some mix of autism and an anxiety disorder, is an easily-manipulated tragic character.
Despite the obvious pressure of choosing between Donnie and Margaret, there seems to be something else percolating beneath Des’ nervousness – some unexplained trauma lurking within.
Sloan’s portrayal of Margaret generates the most pathos.
A soft-spoken voice of reason trying to enforce a matron’s neutrality among the hot heads around her, she ends up becoming more of a victim of the chaos than a cure.
In the end, the boys’ idiosyncrasies end up overrunning the place.
The play deserves the tag “dark comedy,” with Maratos and Westover delivering smartly-timed quips in a staccato-speed discourse.
Here Elgaard’s genius as a writer is apparent.
Besides the natural curse-ladden timing, there are moments when the lines are so dark it’s funny. Or the boys’ eccentricity is too absurd not to laugh.
The performances by all three actors are consistently excellent.
These are not easy roles, especially the brothers. These are distraught people who scream, punch and hurt each other. And the actors do this persuasively.
Maratos’, Westover’s and Sloan’s performances are worth seeing.
As for Elgaard’s dialogue, it’s exactly the kind of epithet-jammed everyday talk you’d expect from a family in crisis, with some creative uses of the f-word to boot.
But acting and dialogue aside, this play is all about the pain of domestic warfare.
It succeeds on this point, making the audience feel genuinely uncomfortable.
But there’s a price for hedging the production on the rawness of reality television-quality verbal violence.
The yelling and screaming and hurting comes at the expense of a storyteller’s fluency.
Donnie is unflinchingly angry; there is no hint of redemption.
And there are no hints generally that the story is moving along until it really begins to unravel near the end.
When the secrets spill and the play’s denouement begins to appear, you’re almost caught off-guard.
The push to make The Boys a crowning display of family dysfunction blocks out any underlying story.
Had the volume been lowered and the outrage been slightly less gratuitous, the play might have gone somewhere.
Not that The Boys needs to have a tightly rounded ending – it could still be open-ended.
But because the bulk of it is so loud and intense, the story’s point is largely of lost.
The intensity overwhelms the message about the intractable links between family, whether that link is a dead relative or a home, or a message about the complexity of stressed-out human beings.
The arguing crowds out the reasons for these people having to argue.
Unless, of course, the director’s vision was to just leave people feeling ill-at-ease. And there’s some worth in this.
Family life sometimes sucks. It’s true.
Especially when drug abuse, death, mental illness, anger issues and bickering over property are part of it.
But most people probably wouldn’t choose to revisit family fights in their raw, original form.
They would be left with the same feeling of the pain being pointless, the arguments going nowhere.
In The Boys, there’s definitely enough material to show people that the pain is worth it.
The reasons behind Donnie’s pent-up anger and Des’s mysterious guilt are worthy book-ends to the ferocious battles waged during most of the play.
But they get lost in the noise.
The Boys runs Wednesday through Saturday until October 16th. Tonight is pay-what-you can.
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