Editor’s note: Sara Holdren, New York and Vulture’s regular theater critic, is on vacation.
Like its narrator, a character simply called “Woman” played with great precision by Carey Mulligan, Dennis Kelly’s play Girls & Boys almost has it all. Woman has a booming career as a documentary-film executive and is the devoted mother of two children, but she’s married the wrong man, and her husband’s faults will go on to have disastrous consequences for all involved. Girls & Boys, meanwhile, is intelligently designed, with a gorgeously clever set, and crisp lights from Es Devlin and Oliver Fenwick, respectively. It’s sensitively directed by Lyndsey Turner and features a haunted, lived-in, and often quite funny turn from its lone onstage performer.
What Girls & Boys lacks is a script that elevates its subject matter to compelling drama, or anything resembling art. Instead Girls & Boys, which begins, entertainingly enough, by alternating between direct-address confessional monologues that thrum to the cadence of stand-up comedy and scenes where Woman pantomimes parenting her two young children, turns out to be an Issue Play. It has societal problems at its center — misogyny and violence — that it wants to talk with us about, but it has nothing new or particularly interesting to say.
Girls & Boys isn’t actually about people. It’s about archetypal Girls and Boys, narrated by Woman. She is married to a man who is never named. These are aggregate psychological profiles, built out of statistics and Google searches and magazine articles, instead of living, breathing humans. And although Mulligan’s performance goes a long way into breathing life into Woman — she feels every inch the funny, tough, working-class woman who has suffered things we would all rather not think about, and burns with a need to tell us of them — the character’s children are persistently vague, and they’re the focus of much of the play’s action. Mulligan’s pantomimed interactions with her offspring come to feel almost like a metaphor for the absence of any real details about them in the script. Both onstage and on the page, they are phantoms, props in the script’s exhausting campaign to wow us with its serious purpose.
Girls & Boys wants to surprise you. The first half of the play is largely misdirection, with themes set up, clues laid deftly in the background. Every single scene contains some moment where gender becomes salient, whether it’s Woman defending herself from the accusation that she treats her son more leniently than her daughter or rebuffing an advance from a septuagenarian academic she’s interviewing. All of this meandering gains a purpose with a twist, one that strips Woman of her distance from the dangers we see on the evening news. That twist — too significant for me to describe it in detail without spoiling the show — occurs both meta-theatrically and in the story at once. It’s a clever idea, meant to create resonance between the shock Woman feels as her marriage descends into darkness and the shock of discovering that the funny, aimless, domestic comedy we’ve been watching is the prelude to a tragedy. But the twist also evacuates the play of all its mystery at the halfway point, and makes the first hour of the show feel like largely irrelevant water-treading. Kelly, best known Stateside as the writer of the book for Matilda, has created a structure out of red herrings.
In particular, there’s a missed opportunity to explore gender and marital competition, and the way that men’s support for their partners can turn into rage when the women become more successful. Often, that story is told from the point of view of the man, but Girls & Boys is instead seen through a wife who outpaces her husband and then finds she no longer recognizes him. That’s a fascinating subject for a play, one that has room for internal conflict, inappropriate sentiments, thematic thorniness. All of these qualities are missing from Girls & Boys. For a play that begins with the kind of laugh-out-loud raunch that viewers of Ali Wong’s recent comedy specials will find familiar, it turns out to be remarkably tame, tasteful, and all-too-appropriate when the subject matter turns weighty.
What lingered for me when the lights came down at the end and Arcade Fire blared over the curtain call wasn’t shock, or dread, or sadness, but rather outrage. Not at the play’s subject matter, but at Girls & Boys itself. It’s not serious enough or interesting enough to earn the right to subject the audience to what it puts us through. It’s the kind of play that everyone can nod along to, feeling like they’ve had an experience, when what has occurred is an ersatz dramatic event featuring ersatz characters that doesn’t so much explore its themes as cross them off a list.
The horrors that men inflict on the world around them clearly fascinate Kelly. What is the point of a society, in the face of that? It’s a question the play asks twice, and it’s a good question for a play to be asking in this particular moment. Sadly, Girls and Boys answers it. Society, “this incredibly, amazing, bizarre, wonderful, and complex construction we have made out of human interaction and co-operation,” hasn’t been made for the benefit of men, but rather “to stop men.” I agree with this answer — so did Aeschylus, for what it’s worth — but it’s a simple answer, and a familiar one. Girls & Boys wants to teach you something, to show you something of social worth and make you feel like you’ve learned. But what the play actually does is tell you things you already know, and then congratulate you for knowing them.