By Penny Jackson; Directed by Joan Kane
Produced by Ego Actus
Off Off Broadway, New Play
Runs through 8.2.15
Theatre Row's Lion Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street
by Eleanor Bader on 7.19.15
Lue McWilliams and Olivia Scott in I Know What Boys Want. Photo by Al Foote III.
BOTTOM LINE: Sexual double standards are highlighted in this dark comedy about what happens when a sexual tryst between high school students is videotaped by a vindictive classmate—and then goes viral.
As the audience waits for I Know What Boys Want to begin, a series of projected text messages silently invite them to become part of the in-group: “Did you see this? Doesn’t she go to our school? O wow you weren’t kidding. This IS her. I feel bad sharing this but this is really her fault.”
It’s a clever set-up—and it does not stop with words on a wall. Before the lights dim, we see three high school-aged girls--part of an ensemble that includes four young actors--sitting on a staircase, eyes glued to their phones, and watch as they erupt into barely audible gossip and laughter. On the other side of the stage a boy and girl interrupt their make-out session to stare at their screens and titter aloud.
Yes, mayhem is about to erupt at Parker Prep, a tony prep school attended by children of New York’s most affluent. Furthermore, as the story unfolds we learn that everyone in—and beyond—their community, including teachers, is enjoying the guilty pleasure of viewing a secretly videotaped hook-up between seniors Vicky Walker (Olivia Scott) and Roger Chase (Alex Esola) that was shot by Oliver Bourne (Jesse Shane Bronstein), Roger’s best friend since childhood.
As the encounter goes viral, Vicky finds herself getting slammed on every front. Her feminist mother doesn’t understand how her daughter could have gotten herself into this predicament; her headmaster wants her removed from the student body; her closest girlfriends are avoiding her; people she’s never met are calling her a “slut,” and worse. Meanwhile, Roger’s status as hottest boy on campus is quickly rising.
It’s hard not to feel infuriated, which is exactly as intended.
In a statement about the production, Ego Actus explains that the play is meant as a “cautionary tale.” It works: not only does I Know What Boys Want address the many ways that slut-shaming silences discussion and limits solidarity, it highlights the many ways that adults fail the youth in our lives.
But it also does more than this. Although it’s a cliché that “hurt people hurt people,” the truth of the statement is undeniable and Oliver—a villain if there ever was one—could be its poster boy, both an arrogant, vindictive prick and a desperately sad and hurt little boy. His character has been masterfully written—and Bronstein’s performance is perfect.
Likewise, Vicky. That she fights back and refuses to be defeated by either Oliver or her peers adds to the play’s uplift, and while her feminism is different from her mom’s, she’s nobody’s fool. She feels betrayed—certainly realistic—but remains largely undaunted. It's wonderful to see a young woman with so much verve, self-possession, and unapologetic fire.
All told, I Know What Boys Want is bold, provocative, and wise. “This play was born out of the frustration, anger, and disgust of the playwright and director at articles we had seen in the press about the victimization of teenaged girls,” the program note reports. This timely and socially relevant drama illustrates how social media can be used to foster sexual subordination. At the same time, the play illustrates the power of challenging expectations, speaking out, and fighting back. Director Joan Kane keeps the action moving and the quick pace mirrors the speed with which words and images spread between people known and unknown to those involved.
Writer Penny Jackson told Indie Theatre Now that she believes that “theater can bring about social change.” Her goals? To end cyberbullying and the promulgation of revenge porn. It’s a tall order, but I Know What Boys Want asks hard questions about gender, sexual agency, and propriety. Zeroing in on the tendency to reward boys and punish girls for sexual experimentation, it highlights the many tasks that remain for 21st century feminists.
(I Know What Boys Want plays at Theatre Row's Lion Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, through August 2, 2015. Performances are Wednesdays through Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $19.25 and are available at telecharge.com; or by calling 212.239.6200.)