Nine years after a pair of gay teen boys fell unforgettably into first love in Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing, Celebration Theatre and director Michael Matthews reunite for the similarly themed (albeit considerably darker) Dream Boy, Eric Rosen’s meticulously faithful adaptation of Jim Grimsley’s haunting Southern Gothic novel, an imaginatively directed, superbly performed, gorgeously designed Los Angeles Premiere marred only by poor sightlines that will often have you craning to see the action.
This time round, the setting is not the low-income housing projects of East London but the rustic hills of North Carolina where romantic—and sexual—sparks quickly ignite between shy, handsome, bookish town newcomer Nathan (Matthew Boehm) and Roy (Randall Ray Clute), Nathan’s sexy, athletic next-door-neighbor.
Not that Roy would dub his feelings romantic. “We’re buddies” is as far as the year-older boy will go, even after their first passionate kisses. “I have a girlfriend and I don’t have to do this if I don’t want to.”
Still, it would be obvious to anyone observing the twosome’s first study date that the younger boy exerts a palpably magnetic force of attraction on the older, particularly as staged by Matthews and his high-chemistry leads.
In another time, another place, Nathan and Roy might not feel the need to keep their love a secret, but this is Bible Belt country where teenage campers sing hymns as they sit round the fire and boys who’ve just made love do the same.
Complicating things further is Nathan’s home environment, where a well-meaning but ineffectual Mother (Elizabeth Dement) seems powerless to protect her son from his Bible-spouting drunk of a Father (Jim Hanna), whose abuse may well extend even beyond the verbal and physical.
Add to this already volatile mix the menace posed by Roy’s bully of a buddy Burke (Billy Evans), and it’s hardly surprising that impending doom hangs in the North Carolina air, and never more so then when a camping trip has the foursome visiting an abandoned, supposedly haunted plantation.
Playwright Rosen maintains much of Grimsley’s third-person, present-tense narration, delivered here by an older, omnipresent observer (Christopher Maikish) whose resemblance to Nathan may be more than coincidental as Matthew has him dressed and coiffed.
Matthews’ direction is as visually stunning as always, though whenever characters sit or lie on the floor (which is often in Dream Boy), he is sabotaged by the Lex Theatre’s only slightly raked seating, meaning that if you’re in the third row as I was, you’ll have two rows of heads blocking your view of much of what’s going on down there.
Fortunately, not everything that happens is at floor level, and even more fortunately, performances are everything you could wish for, in particular Boehm’s shy, intelligent, tormented Nathan and Clute’s outgoing, macho, sexually confused Roy, and both young actors handle the play’s more erotic moments with passion and grace (while miraculously keeping their undies on even during all-the-way sex).
Evan’s darkly dangerous Burke, Craig Jorczak’s sweet, good-hearted Randy (the fourth member of Dream Boy’s teenage male quartet), and Erin McIntosh’s gossipy, hopelessly infatuated Hannah are all terrific, and the cast’s older members are equally fine—Dement’s kind but helpless Mother, Kate Connor’s big-haired, big-hearted Mrs. Connelly, and above all Hanna’s religious fanatic drunk of a Father, and Maikish is simply marvelous as the play’s Narrator. (Dialect coach Tuffet Schmelzle deserves highest marks for the cast’s spot-on North Carolina vowels.)
Dream Boy looks sensational thanks to Stephen Gifford’s abstract, woodsy set (the tilted picture frame lets us see the action as through old photos hung crooked on the wall), complemented to perfection by Tim Swiss’s evocative lighting, Allison Dillard’s pitch-perfect costumes, Rebecca Kessin’s moody, menacing sound design (Gregory Nabours is music consultant), and Michael O’Hara’s just-right properties.
Dream Boy is produced by Rebecca Eisenberg. Mark Giberson is associate producer. Greg Copeland and Christopher Sepulveda are consulting producers.
Dream Boy’s understudy cast (Brian Brennan, Nick Brovender, Elliott Mayer, Ron Morehouse, Lizzy Rich, Alexis Simpson, Sam Sonenshine, and Garrett Walter) will have their own dedicated performance on Wednesday February 17.
Though perhaps not as cutting edge as it was when Jim Grimsley wrote it two decades ago, Dream Boy will remain relevant as long as sexual abusers and violent homophobes make the nightly news. Darkly seductive and mysteriously moody, it is Celebration Theatre at its best. (Just make sure to sit in the front row.)
Celebration Theatre at Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Ave., Hollywood.
January 29, 2106
Photos: Matthew Brian Denman