Wild Animals You Should Know

Wild Animals You Should Know, the New York debut of playwright Thomas Higgins, played downtown at MCC Theater's Lucille Lortel Theatre from November 4 to December 11. Hillary and I were drawn in by the casting of the production, which included the awesome talents of Jay Armstrong Johnson, Gideon Glick, Patrick Breen, and Alice Ripley, and picked up a pair of tickets to check it out. While our overall reaction to the intermission-less play was fair to middling, we spent more time discussing Wild Animals... than most other shows we'd seen as of late, which is the basis for this post.

  • The premise of the play, as depicted on the show's artwork: Matthew (Johnson) and Jacob (Glick) are Boy Scouts, about to embark on a camping trip. They are accompanied by Matthew's dad, Walter (Breen), who isn't much of an outdoorsman, but is convinced to go along and spend time with his son by his wife, Marsha (Ripley), since he's just been laid off and now has time to spare, although he hasn't yet told his son about this development. Also on the camping trip are Scoutmaster Rodney (the engaging John Behlmann), and Larry (Daniel Stewart Sherman), another chaperone whose son we never see onstage.
  • The relationship between Matthew and Jacob is interesting. Jacob is very clearly gay and secure with who he is. He's attracted to Matthew, who agrees to strip-tease for him via Skype as a birthday present...but we really never find out if Matthew is or isn't gay. The only thing we know for sure is that Matthew is a narcissist, a domineering kid who achieves everything in his life with ease, who everyone likes and wants, who doesn't really care about Boy Scouts, and who is cunning enough to know exactly how to use his power and presence over others to manipulate them and get what he wants.
  • Before the camping trip, Matthew and Jacob spy on Scoutmaster Rodney through their neighboring windows, and happen to see him with another man. Matthew sets out to "ruin" him, and his scheming eventually works - Rodney resigns, never having done anything offensive and clearly torn up about losing his place in the organization. Here, we felt that the star of the show was Mr. Johnson. The character he created was, in many ways, quite terrifying. Those fortunate enough to fall into his circle of friends were set, but those who crossed over to his bad side should be worried. As Matthew, Mr. Johnson did a wonderful job of walking the line between making us want to be friends with him and making us despise his manipulative guts.
  • We thought that Walter was the most interesting character of the bunch, although still a bit underdeveloped. For instance, he had the knowledge to advise Rodney how to clean graffiti off his garage doors, and at one point in the play, Matthew called him a "little bitch," which isn't the first insult that comes to mind for a son to call his father. Along with a slightly effeminate nature and his dislike of the outdoors, the thought crossed our minds that perhaps Walter had been teased for his sexuality as a boy. We also would have liked a deeper backstory for Rodney. Why did he decide to become a leader in and feel so strongly about an organization that traditionally rejects homosexuality? (The play explained that Rodney had lost his lover and needed something to fill his time, and that he simply liked the outdoors, but we would have liked something more.)
  • The final scene showed Matthew and Rod looking out their respective neighboring windows as Matthew began to strip...but we didn't get a clear sense of whether Rod was looking at Matthew, or away from him. If Rod was looking, it defeated the entire purpose of his character's defensive nature over the situation. If he wasn't looking, that made Matthew seem like a ruthless, pompous tool. So.
  • Ms. Ripley's part was very small and could have been played by anyone, but it was nice to see a genuine smile from her on-stage, even if it was for a very short time. We also never thought we'd see her chug a can of beer and crush it against her forehead.
  • Mr. Glick's character was fairly stereotypical, but he really stood out in one scene in particular, where he finally confronted Matthew and stood up to him.

Overall, we thought that the playwright just wasn't able to settle on a focus for his play, and as a result, it delved into a few too many issues without saying anything definitive about any of them. For instance, all the scenes were organized with above-the-stage projections of titles from different sections of the Scoutmaster Handbook, which was fine, but too often they felt like separate entities, with no connecting thread between them. In our humble opinion, though, the cast outshone the material they were given, and hey - a play that makes us exercise our brains and critical skills is never a bad thing.

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