Review: ‘The Beautiful People’ is an uncomfortable look at combustible male rage
“The Beautiful People,” a new play by Tim Venable produced by Rogue Machine at the Matrix Theatre, takes place in the basement where two high school boys are having a sleepover on the eve of a school shooting that forever changed the course of American life.
It’s the late 1990s. Goth is cool. Computers are boxy. MTV is playing in the background. Video games are the non-jock version of sports. And Marilyn Manson haunts the headphones of angry, disaffected youth.
The teenage characters, played by Alex Neher and Justin Preston, are identified in the program only as 1 and 2. The setting likewise is meant to be a suburban anywhere. The plot eschews foreshadowing. It is not until the end of the play that the boys’ horrific plans are revealed.
Venable’s focus is on masculinity. “The Beautiful People,” which is also the title of a Manson song, traps us in this basement with the aggression, antagonism, vulnerability and sexual frustration of these young men.
It’s an uncomfortable place for an audience to hang out. A few theatergoers are scattered around the periphery of the set, but no one can escape the scent of combustible teen angst.
The production, scrupulously directed by Guillermo Cienfuegos, forces us to return to this period of our lives when tedium and fury were interchangeable and every social mishap was a melodrama of epic proportions. The psychological claustrophobia is captured in David Mauer’s production design, which lays out this adolescent bunker with minute attention to detail.
Neher’s character is taller and more intimidating. He physically threatens Preston’s character, taking swings at him whenever he feels like it, even hitting him below the belt after losing a fiercely competitive game of Nerf basketball.
Preston’s character, smarter, wealthier and a good deal more sensitive, is introverted to the point of being self-negating. He confesses that he’s never kissed a girl before. Neher’s character boasts that he’s done more than kiss, but he’s insecure about his gawky body and it’s clear that he hasn’t had much success with the opposite sex either.
Fantasies of domination and humiliation bond these two outsiders. They want to turn the tables on the boys who make them feel weak and the girls who make them feel worthless.
Movies are another source of camaraderie. “Natural Born Killers” is a touchstone for the characters, but the film that was on my mind was “Badlands,” Terrence Malick’s 1973 naturalistic classic starring Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen as a pair of young serial killers on the run.
“The Beautiful People” doesn’t have the same laconic breeziness, but it’s in no hurry to reach a climax. Adolescent behavior is placed under the spotlight for collective scrutiny. If the press materials hadn’t made clear that this was a play about school shooters, I might have thought we were in a verité drama about lost young men clinging to each other for survival.
The characters in the script have names, Eric and Dylan. These are the same first names as Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the perpetrators of the Columbine High School massacre.
Rogue Machine doesn’t spell out the connection on its website, though it hints that the characters’ seemingly innocent sleepover has a darker purpose. This nefarious scheme, however, belongs to another drama. Only when morning arrives and it’s time for school is the plan discussed. The play is essentially over at this point. Nighttime, when the drama takes place, isn’t spent in reviewing logistics but in acting out as troubled boys.
It’s as if Venable started to write a play about the Columbine killers and then decided to erase his tracks, not wanting to be bogged down in historical particulars of a phenomenon that has become dangerously prevalent in American society. The goal is perhaps to offer a more probing analysis of the shooters’ injured male identities, but the playwriting strategy is only partially effective.
It’s not credible to me that Eric (Neher) and Dylan (Preston) wouldn’t mention what they were plotting when alone together on the eve of the big day. It’s as if we’re catching a glimpse of earlier versions of these characters before they gave themselves over to their murderous plan and were still perhaps redeemable.
Venable is meticulous in his realism, which shines a quickly moving flashlight into the internal struggles of his characters. Eric, for instance, takes great pride in his father’s military background, the way he was a “killing machine” in the Vietnam War. But when he hears his father moving around upstairs, the mere sound of his presence sets off a panic attack.
Dylan, desperate for approval even if it comes at the cost of being Eric’s punching bag, glows when Eric praises the story he’s written about a vengeful killing spree. Yet his destructive impulse is inwardly directed. It’s Eric’s outward aggression that ushers Dylan away from the ever-present lure of suicide.
But what does all this psychology tell us? I kept thinking as I watched “The Beautiful People” that alienated teens who entertain fantasies of revenge aren’t limited to the U.S. Nor is bullying or toxic masculinity or violent video games.
When it comes to mass carnage, what separates America from other comparable nations is access to firearms. The stockpile of armaments pulled out at the end of “The Beautiful People” tells a more pertinent story about school shootings.
After a week in which the Supreme Court decided that people have a constitutional right to carry a firearm in public but don’t have a constitutional right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, and after the unspeakable horror at Robb Elementary School in Texas’ Uvalde County last month, I was hoping for a more incisive political analysis of our recurring mass shooting nightmare. But this well-observed, well-acted production provides a discomfiting look at the roots of male violence in America.
'The Beautiful People'
Where: Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays, Mondays, 3 p.m. Sundays. No performance on July 4. Ends July 31.
Tickets: $45 general admission
Contact: (855) 585-5185 or www.roguemachinetheatre.net
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
COVID protocol: Audiences are required to show proof of vaccination, have their temperature taken on entrance and wear masks at all times until further notice.
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