Anna Ziegler

Boy vs. Girl vs. Boy

The hot-button issue of gender identity is at the center of Anna Ziegler’s Boy, a troubling and moving new play, and the first world premiere from the Keen Company since 2008. The subject of sexuality is in the zeitgeist, from a new musical, Southern Comfort, about Georgia transsexuals, currently at the Public Theater, to civic debates about restroom accommodations.

The story that Ziegler presents falls on the serious side. During circumcision, one of a set of twins was horribly mutilated, losing his penis. His distraught parents write to a doctor who appeared on 60 Minutes and specializes in gender identity to seek help. He advises them to raise the infant, named Samuel, as a girl, Samantha.

Ziegler tells her story in flashback, starting at the moment Adam, who was born Samuel but raised as Samantha and reinvented himself as a man, meets a girl named Jenny (Rebecca Rittenhouse) at a Halloween party. Jenny is someone Samantha knew in school and shared a class with. Jenny doesn’t recognize Adam, for obvious reasons, but he feels a strong attraction to her.

Bobby Steggert invests Adam with a mixture of well-meaning sweetness and a tentative confidence that sometimes leads him astray. His initial meeting with Jenny goes awry when she confesses having a 4-year-old child and he says he likes children and would be glad to give the kid a lift. It puts Jenny on guard, but it’s symptomatic of Adam’s failure to fully socialize himself. And, without using makeup or drag, Steggert gently creates a little girl, crossing his ankles or pitching his voice slightly higher, or talking quickly, as children do. The plan of Sam’s parents, Doug and Trudy (Ted Köch and Heidi Armbruster), is to socialize him as a girl until he is old enough to have operations to create a vagina. But even with Dr. Wendell Barnes’s coaching, Sam feels innately more interest in bugs, cars, and traditional “boy” interests.

The play comes down strongly in favor of nature prevailing over nurture. That brings it in line with the idea that being gay or transgender is not some perversion of the natural order. Indeed, the perversion in Boy is clearly the mentality of Dr. Barnes (Paul Niebanck), the eminence who persuades Doug and Trudy to maneuver Sam into the opposite sex. Sandra Goldmark’s unremarkable furniture nonetheless provides a striking visual parallel to the psychology: second sets of furnishings hang upside down over the set, a visual parallel to Samantha's inversion.

Even misguided, Niebanck’s doctor is a touching figure, a self-possessed gay man (he calls himself “a former boy who didn’t quite fit in”) who means to do well and cares in his way for Sam. Yet Niebanck invests the doctor with a sense that he is perhaps too doctrinaire in his theories. A climactic scene when Adam confronts Dr. Barnes and reveals that he has become a man, thanks to operations, is quietly devastating for both characters.

Ziegler plots the course carefully, and under the direction of Linsay Firman, the flashbacks make sense and flow smoothly. As in the playwright’s last outing, A Delicate Ship, which took its title from a W.H. Auden poem, literature plays a part. Here, Dr. Barnes’s assertion that Paradise Lost is the greatest poem ever written hints at a concealed interest in playing God.

Serving as counterpoint is another poem, Leigh Hunt’s Rondeau, which Dr. Barnes introduced to Sam, that remains Adam’s favorite. Milton’s is highbrow and concerned with the ineffable; Hunt’s is quotidian and concerned with real life and the physical, and ends: “Say I’m weary/Say I’m sad/Say that health and wealth have missed me/Say I’m growing old, but add/Jenny kissed me.”

Every so often Ziegler indulges in sentimentality, notably in a late scene when Adam reveals the night his father told him about the accident. Eating ice cream in the car, Doug said: “You came out of your mother, just who you are. This kind, gentle boy.” Steggert smiles affectionately. “You shouldn’t drink so much, Dad,” he says helpfully. And the anguished Doug replies, “I know that. But sometimes we just can’t control what it is we do, can we?” When the story is done, Jenny wants to know what flavor the ice cream was. It’s a clumsy non sequitur suffused with cutesiness. But the errors are few. Even if you’ve thought you’ve heard all the arguments about the topic, Boy brings them home powerfully. 

The Keen Company production of Boy runs through April 9 at the Clurman Theater (410 W. 42nd St. between 9th and 10th Aves.) in Manhattan. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. on Tuesday-Thursday and 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Matinees are at 2 p.m. on Saturday and 3 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $62.50 and may be ordered at www.telecharge.com.

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Adrift in Choppy Waters

Playwrights Realm has been a champion of new writing since its inaugural production, Substitution, back in 2008, and has often introduced important new voices in theater. Last year’s offering, the thrilling My Mañana Comes by Elizabeth Irwin, won two Drama Desk nominations. However, Anna Ziegler’s A Delicate Ship, whose title is taken from W.H. Auden’s poem Musée des Beaux Arts, doesn’t rise to the same heights.

The three-hander, a meditation on adulthood directed by Margot Bordelon, involves Sarah, a young woman in the midst of a happy relationship with her boyfriend Sam, and Nate, a young man whom she has known since childhood. Nate arrives drunk and unannounced on Sarah’s doorstep on a snowy Christmas Eve. What has instigated his sudden appearance is the discovery of a poem (Musée) he found in a college textbook from 1993.

As events unfold, characters break the fourth wall frequently to describe themselves or comment on cohorts. Early on, for instance, Sarah (Miriam Silverman) tells us about herself:

"I am the woman reading The New Yorker on the subway, mostly the cartoons and the movie reviews and occasionally an essay about the failures of doctors and hospitals and how we could, all of us, die very young…. In this memory, tonight, I am thirty-three."

At another point, Matt Dellapina’s easygoing Sam reveals: "I’m a Mets fan—always have been, die-hard—even during the years when they were worse than awful. I love sushi, though I didn’t have the nerve to try it til I was thirty-two years old."

It’s quickly apparent that Nate (Nick Westrate) is carrying a torch for Sarah, although it’s never quite clear why Silverman’s overly patient hostess suffers Nate’s intrusion into a romantic liaison on Christmas Eve. She and Nate used to smoke a joint together in their building while growing up, but it hardly makes his visit credible. Soon Nate is baiting Sam with snide comments that eventually turn into full-blown insults.

The set-up promises drama, but the direct address to the audience distances one from the emotions the characters feel. Ziegler has some interesting things to say about parents and children, time and happiness, but the primary mode of interaction is philosophical debate, even though Ziegler tries to establish the groundwork by having Sarah declare of Sam: “He’s a singer-slash-philosopher-slash-legal secretary.” It’s impossible to imagine any of them uttering something as mundane as “Please pass the mustard.” At one point, Bordelon even allows Nate to jump up and down on Sarah’s sofa with his shoes on. Ziegler seems to suggest that adults are uncertain children in full-size bodies, but it puts a great strain on credibility.

Even though the dialogue is lively, and Westrate brings passion to the volatile, overbearing Nate, there's a secondhand feeling to the proceedings. Once Nate exclaims, “Let’s play a game!” you might feel like cursing Edward Albee and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and all the dramatic descendants that it has spawned.

Auden’s poem is not merely the source of the title, but a portion is read aloud. The poem itself describes another work of art, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, showing a leg of the overweening young man as he plunges into the sea in a small corner of the canvas. Meanwhile, life goes on around him obliviously, and, in Auden’s words, “The expensive delicate ship, that must have seen/Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,/Had somewhere to get to, and sailed calmly on.” Poem and painting make the point that, as the world experiences an ordinary day, someone nearby is having a life-changing event: death, ruin or horror.

Ziegler’s characters live that Christmas Eve with intensity, and in a sober, affecting coda, two of them meet years later in Prospect Park. (Here the blurry photograph of the New York City skyline that backs Reid Thompson’s simple set makes its most pointed contribution, suggesting the mists of memory.) Each has found happiness, known family loss, and had children. And parenthood, Ziegler implies, has forced them finally to grow up. It’s a beautiful finale to a sometimes awkward production.

A Delicate Ship plays through Sept. 12 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons (416 W. 42nd St. between 9th and 10th Aves.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Matinees are at 4 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $35 and can be purchased by calling Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or visiting https://ticketcentral.com.

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