New studies have suggested that adolescence extends well into one’s 20s. Browncoat’s latest production, “Boys’ Life,” perfectly captures this mindset. The character-driven piece seems tailored for the intimacy of the Browncoat and Pub Theatre.
Originally conceived by playwright Howard Korder in 1988, the script remains relevant today. “Boys’ Life” explores the result of lives that are forced into the cynicism of societal doom. Throughout the play, tiny reminders of things like Watergate, nuclear war, and the growing disconnect between people creep into conversations. The inclusion of such topics perfectly backdrop the hopelessness of the characters. It makes one ponder if it’s even worth it to strive to be a good person.
“Boys’ Life” chronicles the life of three men caught somewhere between post-gradom and a life of fulfillment. The ringleader, Jack (Hank Toler), spends his days smoking reefer and lying about, having a kid to attract women. His more evolved friend, Don (Brendan Carter), finds himself successfully settling down in a relationship, but Don’s attempts are threatened by boyish tendencies. Meanwhile, the most schmuck-like friend, Phil (Chase Harrison), battles with rejection and a pathetic demeanor that would make even the most spineless jellyfish roll its eyes. Each player commits to their role and boasts an intricate understanding that allows the at-times despicable characters to become relatable.
The production conveys a well-orchestrated balance of humor and drama. The Pulitzer Prize-winning script crafts an organic trajectory and yields a somewhat unresolved ending. This makes the play even more poignant. “Boys’ Life” pose the questions: Do we ever really grow up, and if we do, will that bring about happiness?
Hank Toler discovered the play about 10 years ago as a student at the North Carolina School of the Arts. He’s longed to take on the role of Jack since. His dedication to the part shines through as he showcases a desire for attention and constantly believes the odds are stacked against him. Despite having a wife, who he almost loses, he still plays his reindeer games of extended youth. He constantly provokes Phil and especially Don, bringing jealousy to the forefront of his makeup.
Toler compels as the loathable character, perfectly capturing the antagonizing, not-ready-to-grow-up, aging stoner. His knowledge of the character allows him to take the role further, delving into reasons behind Jack’s behavior. In one scene, he delivers an understated line about not receiving attention during youth. A lesser performer would’ve lingered on the line too long; however, Toler blends the line in with the rest of his dialogue and gives it just enough conviction to stand out. These subversions of big statements cause the audience to wrestle with character. Yet, it avoids the trope of giving easy answers.
Scenes when all three “boys” are onstage come alive with chemistry. Director Nick Smith’s blocking places the characters in three corners. Don perches on the bed, the lowly Phil remains on the floor, and Jack meanders about the room, suffocating the other characters with insolence. Each performer seems tuned into their character, and the attention to detail given to the staging adds layers to their performances.
Carter’s Don offers the perfect opposition to Toler’s Jack. Don is the most lovable member of the stooges; he’s perpetuated into adulthood with the help of his girlfriend, Lisa (Rachel Helms). Carter conveys Don’s evolution to the audience, a most important feat as Don has the most discernible character arc of the play. Carter exudes a boyish demeanor that turns to confidence as the play moves forward. It gives him the courage to stand up to Jack.
Meanwhile, Harrison’s Phil demonstrates the folly of one who hasn’t mastered breaking away from Jack’s tyranny. He goes along with Jack and shows subtle signs of disdain. Harrison’s performance expertly sets the stage for his climactic explosion.
The supporting cast, too, bring a certain flair to the script. No matter how small the role, no performances are dialed in. Holly Cole, of the Pineapple-Shaped Lamps fame, lights up Browncoat as Phil’s love interest. She renders awkward neurosis and still subdues her performance enough to let Harrison shine. Her role mainly constitutes setting up Harrison’s character.
Likewise, Helms does the same for Lisa. Her performance shows off an uptight, yet somehow understanding, catalyst for Don’s growth. She makes the character her own, but shows the dramatic restraint to never overshadow Don’s character arc.
Erin Hunter’s Maggie is perhaps the production’s stand-out performance. A whole other play could be written about her character as she struggles with whether to embark on an affair with Jack. Hunter successfully captures the sardonic, seductive beauty of Maggie, which rivals the boy’s club atmosphere of the production.
Though Toler brought the production to the director’s attention, Smith clearly sunk his teeth into the work. His direction culminates in bringing heart to a play that easily could have become a foray into grandiose frat-guy humor.
“Boys’ Life” is told in two acts separated into vignettes. The simple set design, comprising Browncoat’s mobile blocks, serve the story perfectly. Given the play is largely character-driven, the lack of background catapults their plight to the forefront. t also makes for quick transitions; an important component that had me on the edge of my seat between scenes. “Boys’ Life” invades the mind and leaves audiences anticipating the next vignette, a rarity for plays with loosely connected structure.
“Boys’ Life” stands out among Browncoat’s bill of successes. It gives audiences laughs with substance, and the play’s themes will resound in the mind for days. Coated with relatability, it offers great performances by a dedicated all-star cast.
Browncoat Pub and Theatre
111 Grace Street
Thurs.-Sat., June 19th-22nd, 26th-28th, 8 p.m.; Sun. 3 p.m.