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Hard to handle

Boy Gets Girl loses its grip

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Full disclosure: Among my guiltiest entertainment pleasures is a serious soft spot for CBS’s top-rated “CSI.” By all meaningful artistic standards, “CSI” is a terrible piece of cookie-cutter crime drama, a hyper-stylized and formulaic 52 minutes that, weekly, manages to unveil at least one spectacularly complex and gruesome murder and then solve the crime, all neat and tidy like, before the closing credits roll. I could tell a bogus spiel about how I watch “CSI” because I want closure in a complicated world of unsolved mystery, how I yearn for the comfort of science and logic prevailing, but I’d be lying. I don’t learn much. It just looks slick and moves fast. Like I said: pure guilty pleasure.
Photo by Sarah Daisy Lindmark

Jacqueline Davies, left, and Cash Black star in Boy Gets Girl.

The University of Montana’s opening production, Boy Gets Girl, is a poor man’s version of “CSI”—and, in this case, that’s a bad thing. An important play that deals with the very real problem of stalking and sexual predators shouldn’t be devalued on the same level as popcorn television. And yet too much of director Michael Butterworth’s version gets muddled by unnecessarily slick production and piped in prime-time level melodrama.

Boy Gets Girl is the story of Theresa Bedell (the talented Jacqueline Davies), a steely New York magazine writer who is set up on a blind date with an over-anxious, clean-cut cutie, Tony (the fabulously named Cash Black). Turns out, Tony is about as unhinged as O.J., and when Theresa, early on, suggests they break things off, he begins an exercise in Stalking 101. First there are flowers and phone calls, then nasty voice messages and lewd letters, and then worse. We watch as Theresa navigates a scary and lonely process of keeping her life together under the suffocating watch of an elusive lunatic.

Rebecca Gilman’s script presents a significant cautionary tale, and does an admirable job of taking an old topic in new directions. There’s an added depth in the conversations between Theresa’s male co-workers, two solid Joes who work hard to help and protect their colleague but privately wonder how different they really are from Tony. There’s also an interesting and poignant challenge posed to Theresa as she weighs protecting her identity with the option of creating a new one—a very real solution proposed in some extreme stalking situations. This is still a stalker play with built-in plot limitations—it’s pretty clear from the onset how things will develop—but with scenes such as these Gilman at least demonstrates a desire to elevate the play’s discourse to broader societal implications, and not just operate on the surface level of CBS crime dramas or, worse, the Lifetime made-for-TV movies her script actually references in jest.

And herein lies the rub: It seems all the effort Gilman took to make her play more heady and vital is knocked down with the garish trimmings of UM’s production. Michael Finks’ set design is anything but subtle, a multi-tiered maze that appears to be made entirely of wood panels stripped from a fleet of 1986 station wagons; it’s not necessarily inefficient, simply distracting like yellow plaid. Sasha Watson’s sound design is equally invasive, with each character getting his or her own theme music between set changes as if they need to be introduced like professional wrestlers; the creepy horror flick track for Tony is a bit much, but the stress-ridden electronic arrangements for Theresa—straight from a “CSI” soundtrack, by the way—is downright cheesy. Then there’s the fact that Tony, who more or less vanishes from the script once his evil intentions are established, periodically appears confined in a red-lit cage above the set, just, you know, stalking, to remind the audience that he’s there. Aside from being completely unnecessary, the spot shots, horror music included, are silly over time. The admittedly immature audience at the preview show I attended was actually laughing above a few futile hushes.

Regrettably, there’s more—the unfortunate attempts at New Yawk accents, the jokey tone of “Did somebody call the police?” from the apartment intercom in the would-be tense closing scene—but those are secondary to the more major missteps listed above. What’s so bothersome is Gilman’s script goes out of its way to avoid traditional stereotypes: the cop investigating Theresa’s case even says, “We can’t always tell how much is us, and how much is the world around us,” underlying the fact that the profiles of victims and stalkers alike is always blurry. Theresa is stubbornly independent; Tony is, at least for a few moments, normal; and even the most enjoyable supporting character, porn king Les Kennkat (a fantastic Jim Sontag), turns out to play against type and become one of Theresa’s most treasured confidants. In many ways all of them are disturbingly vulnerable and real—even Kennkat—up until the direction starts to crank things up to a level of caricature.

If stripped down to Theresa’s raw fear and her colleagues’ honest ruminations, there’d be a gripping story in Boy Gets Girl. But with all the production’s peripheral nonsense, it becomes exactly what it was aiming to avoid—something worthy, maybe, of basic cable.

Boy Gets Girl continues at UM’s Masquer Theatre through Saturday, Sept. 29, and Tuesday, Oct. 2 through Saturday, Oct. 6, at 7:30 PM. $11/$10 students.

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