Eric Conger’s intermissionless “Beautiful Boy,” in its world-premiere production by Walnut Street Theatre, is two plays, really. The first illuminates a man searching for the mother who put him up for adoption at birth 49 years ago. It’s fine playwriting — expressive, convincing, genuine. The second is a depiction of what happens once his quest for adoption papers reaches an end. It’s the sort of playwriting that insults an audience – contrived, overreaching, artificial.
This isn’t a criticism about whether the man should find his birth mother or not – that’s not the point and in any case, fully up to the playwright. But once decided, why shouldn’t the resolution be clear? In “Beautiful Boy,” it’s hinged on a hokey plot device, and comes in a flash of dialogue that’s hard to follow and feels like a leap (or several) of logic.
I’ll stop this line of thought here, and let Conger telegraph the ending himself each night, then finish it off with ham hands – so clumsy, that 90 minutes into “Beautiful Boy” the characters come out and talk, in an amateurish shift of theatrical style, directly to the audience. It seems as though we’re now looking at another version of the same play.
That play, on a side note, begins with reasonable enough complaints about the Roman Catholic church’s support of laws that seal the birth files of adopted children, but the script devolves into provocative assertions about the church from some of the characters. I began to wonder, by the end, whether we were dealing with author-message rants from a self-hating Catholic, several levels beyond a merely lapsed one. Or maybe a super-smug Protestant.
Jeffrey Coon plays the adopted person on a search, with a finely tuned sense of desperation that increases as the law (which is, in fact, changing in several states) throws ever-higher walls around him. The veteran actress Carla Belver, who has created the smartest interpretations for the characters of mature women, does it again here for two of them: the desk clerk at a storehouse of files and a nun in a nearly vacant retirement home for sisters. Alicia Roper is the man’s wife, a bit too smiley for what her character is often saying, and Elena Bossler and Phillip Brown play smaller but important roles.
Video designer Michael Long sets the scenes, sometimes confusingly, with flat-screen monitor projections – what was a piece of Moore College of Art doing there when Philadelphia played no part in the story? Glen Sears’ basic set of movable furnishings – a desk here, a few chairs there and in the end, a part of a living-room at the retirement home – easily works.
The director, David Stradley, who is also artistic director of the single-play summertime Delaware Shakespeare Festival, moves the action fluidly around the Walnut’s third-floor playing area when “Beautiful Boy” is in its good-play first phase, and even manages to make it feel active in its more static bad-play second part. Try as he may, nothing seems natural when the actors pop out at the end and abruptly speak to us.
Conger, who wrote another Walnut Street Theatre world premiere called “The Eclectic Society,” has a nice way of injecting humor into his script and is a careful plot builder. The problem here is his struggle to sensibly resolve it. He lays out his main character’s motivation well: “My relatives are ghosts and my past is in a filing cabinet somewhere,” the man says. Adopted people can face terrible hurdles in search of their birth identities, and birth parents may suffer equally devastating threats to what they believed was absolute privacy. That’s a conflict ripe for great theater. At least Conger gets the searching part right, before his play begins to deteriorate.
“Beautiful Boy” runs through March 9 at Walnut Street Theatre’s third-floor Independence Studio, Walnut Street between Eighth and Ninth Streets. 215-574-3550 or www.walnutstreettheatre.org.