“Wild Animals You Should Know” by Thomas Higgins at the Lucille Lortel Theatre

I saw this strange and disturbing play, "Wild Animals You Should Know," by Thomas Higgins, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre on Saturday afternoon.  This is a production of MCC Theater, with Trip Cullman conducting a very strong cast, consisting of John Behlmann, Patrick Breen, Gideon Glick, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Alice Reipley, and Daniel Stewart Sherman.

The premise is that teenage boys are savage animals… Well, at least some of them.  The central character, Matthew, is played by Jay Armstrong Johnson.  Matthew, a high schooler with blond good looks, athletic physique, high – but superficial – intellect, and tons of sexual confusion, has befriended the class outcast, Jacob, a skinny nerdish gay boy who is picked on by everybody (Gideon Glick).  Jacob worships (and lusts after) Matthew, but Matthew effects to be repulsed at the idea while sending out mixed signals (like doing a partial strip-tease in front of his minicam so that Jacob can watch it on his laptop as a birthday present), and making unconvincing references to his girlfriend. The boys are in the same Boy Scout Troop, and Matthew's trusty binoculars have revealed to him a secret about their Scoutmaster, Rodney (John Behlmann).  Awful confrontations occur on a camping trip, with Matthew's father (Patrick Breen) and another father (Daniel Stewart Sherman) along as parental chaperones.  It seems that Matthew's mother (Alice Ripley) has done most of the hands-on parenting in the family, and has to push Walter, the father, into going on the camping trip – during which he discovers the pleasures of kicking back and guzzling too much beer with another guy.

The dangers of the closet are strewn throughout the show, and the ending is somewhat ambiguous.  I shouldn't say more about the plot here, but I can say that the entire production is skillfully put together, some of the dialogue is hilarious, the actors seem totally involved in their characters, and the entire thing is swiftly paced and completely absorbing.  The NY Times critic thought that it showed promise for the future achievements of Mr. Higgins, while noting some flaws in this effort.  I certainly think he should be encouraged to keep writing plays, because this is one that, despite some crudity, really involves the audience in the dilemmas faced by the characters.

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