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Review: Boys will be Monsters in THE BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE

Review: Boys will be Monsters in THE BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE

Timely But Uncomfortable Two-Hander runs through July 31 at the Matrix Theatre

There is a moment, close to the end of Tim Venable's play THE BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE, when the two young men we have spent the last 70 minutes observing in a state of cruel aimlessness, move into action mode. An off-stage voice, belonging one of the character's mothers, informs the two that it's time for them to go school. She uses their names, marking the first (and only) time these characters are identified. In the interest of keeping the play suitably un-spoiled, I will not out them, although anyone paying any kind of close attention could easily read the signs.

It is at this moment of identification, when THE BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE transitions from an uncomfortably ruminative stare-down of dangerous masculinity to a speculative attempt at docudrama. It's also the moment that Guillermo Cienfuegos's production for Rogue Machine jumps the shark. The stakes have been altered and our investment changes. Now instead of bringing down the curtain on eerie uncertainty, as we watch actors Alex Neher and Justin Preston silently finishing their preparation for school, we know exactly what will happen when they get there.

To this point, the work of Cienfuegos, Neher and Preston (with a big assist from fight director Jonathan Rider) has been brave, honest and frequently stomach-churning, the kind of character study that should frighten the hell out of anybody (particularly parents). Very little actually happens in that basement bedroom where these two long-time friends fritter away their hours videogaming, playing Nerf basketball, chugging sugary sodas and boasting/dreaming about sexual conquests. Time feels fluid. Yet we are building toward something.

With intended homage to cinema's MEN IN BLACK, let's call our protagonists H and K. K (Neher) is the alpha, the son of a Vietnam vet, who embraces military values, dreams of building up a six-pack and treats H, his running mate - and likely only friend - appallingly. This is his house. Mop-topped, sweatshirt-wearing H (Preston), while only slightly less of a braggart, is softer and more sensitive, perpetually on the receiving end of all of K's blows both physical and psychological. Every inch a misfit, H takes it on the chin from his school mates, from the world at large and, worst of all, from K. And he's starting to reach a boiling point.

Perversely enough, what we are watching is a credible "friendship." Between bouts of video games, the two bucks confess secrets to each other, share things, even drop their pants to study each other's genitals. They watch snippets of the news and critique Bill Clinton (it's the late 90s.) At one point H reads K a story he has written, which K inspired. Rather astonishingly, K doesn't trash it.

Not every theater-goer will relish the idea of hanging out with angrier violent incarnations of Beavis and Butt-Head. Fortunately, both actors are remarkable and their work goes a long way toward keeping us interested and invested if not particularly sympathetic. Preston's H, the more relatable of the two, is an open wound brought agonizingly to life. Desperate to please and trying so hard to keep his bearing after every betrayal, the actor makes us want to find this kid some help post-haste.

K, while equally messed up, is a tougher one to embrace. Neher brings out the fact that the kid recognizes his vulnerability and despises the fact that it exists. With his lean, predatory face and the ways that he looks at everybody and anything for signs of weakness, Neher inhabits a character who may already bee too far gone. Sympathy, compassion, understanding? Nope, this is a young man who wants nothing from anybody. Which is terrifying.

As both a self-producing venue and a rental venue , the Matrix Theatre has brought a lot of spectacular worlds to life during its mighty history. The space's configuration for THE BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE, fashioned by production designer David Mauer and the technical team, is superb. Cienfuegos stages the action essentially in the round, surrounding the actors with audience members who can even sit on their bean bags and sofas if they so choose. Point taken: these kids are in our faces, and we are in theirs. Whether that makes us, the older and hopefully wiser generation in any way complicit with what we're seeing is up for discussion, and Rogue Machine has smartly scheduled several talk-backs as part of its Difficult Conversation series during the run of the production.

While this play is about young people, a segment of the production's audience will recall the 1990s. They'll remember Clinton's highlights (pre and post-presidency) banging away on game systems like the one K and H use or booting up a computer with a floppy drive. This is by no means a nostalgia trip. We have come so very far from the events depicted in THE BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE - perhaps the year's most ironic title. And yet, as recent headlines have so painfully demonstrated, in many ways we have barely moved an inch.

THE BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE plays through July 31 at the Matix Theatre,

Photo of (L-R) Justin Preston and Alex Neher by John Perrin Flynn

From This Author - Evan Henerson

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