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Entertainment & Arts

Review: Kavanaugh hearings lend a new lens for Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s ‘Good Boys’

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Ben Ahlers and Betsy Brandt in “Good Boys” at Pasadena Playhouse.
(Jenny Graham)
Theater Critic

Public awareness has caught up with “Good Boys,” Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s 2008 play about prep school privilege and toxic masculinity that has been revised for a gripping new production at Pasadena Playhouse.

The playwright is a graduate of the same high school as Brett Kavanaugh, whose beer-drinking shenanigans and coded yearbook remarks were the subject of much scrutiny during the sexual assault allegation hearing that threatened to derail his path to the Supreme Court. There’s no PJ, Squi or talk of brewskis in “Good Boys,” but the aggressive milieu of youthful masculine entitlement should be familiar to those who tuned in to the Kavanaugh grilling.

The year is 1988, and Brandon Hardy (Ben Ahlers, lending the role a touch of seductive Macaulay Culkin-esque mischief) is the golden boy of the prestigious St. Joseph’s Preparatory School for Boys in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. Captain of the football team just like his father a generation ago, he’s handsome, charming and cleverly manipulative enough to get good grades without having to grind.

Brandon’s princely smile and casual grace lay claim to the Ivy League future he assumes is his birthright. Dartmouth is calling, but so too is coach Russell Shea (James Carpinello), who has discovered a sexually explicit videotape of a girl being filmed seemingly without her consent.

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The young man’s face in the video is obscured, but Russell believes the culprit is Brandon. He arranges a meeting with Elizabeth (Betsy Brandt), Brandon’s physician mother, who can’t believe that her son would be capable of such an act. Russell was a classmate at St. Joseph’s with Elizabeth’s husband, a doctor who’s on a medical “mercy” mission in the developing world, and he gives her the opportunity to clear up the matter with her son before the headmaster finds out.

Aguirre-Sacasa, a playwright, comic book writer and screenwriter who created the TV series “Riverdale,” is at his best in writing dialogue between Brandon and his peers. But the scene in which Elizabeth confronts her son with the videotape is deftly pulled off, revealing not simply his facility for lying and skirting consequences but his complete absence of a moral conscience.

Brandon isn’t a monster, but his arrogance is ingrained, cultivated at such an early age that it’s become as natural to him as his hair color. He doesn’t bother to examine his behavior because life has always been on his side. His innocence of the rules comes with a subtle smirk: He knows the game was designed for his enjoyment. (Ahlers captures both the sweetness and the cunning.)

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Ben Ahlers, front left, and Dylan Arnold, front right, with the cast of “Good Boys” at Pasadena Playhouse.
(Jenny Graham)

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‘Good Boys’ would be stronger if it explained less and insinuated more. But it’s impossible to look away from this tale of privilege exposed.

Aguirre-Sacasa complicates his character with a secret, but what’s important is how protective Brandon is of his status. The worst thing he can imagine is to be demoted to second best. His interaction with Justin (a spunky Dylan Arnold), his gay best buddy who is as in love with him as everyone else, shows the way Brandon exploits the attachments he inspires. Even when he genuinely feels affection, he never loses sight that his life matters more.

The production, confidently directed by Carolyn Cantor, unfolds on a swiftly shifting set by Dane Laffrey that keeps us ever mindful of the hallowed halls of this pubescent incubator of America’s elite. The acting is consistently good, even when the writing hits an off-note.

Aguirre-Sacasa has expanded “Good Boys” (formerly called “Good Boys and True”), and the way the focus switches from Brandon to Elizabeth and back again can feel unsettled, especially late in the second half. Brandt (whose TV work includes “Life in Pieces” and “Breaking Bad”) is occasionally asked to speak lines that spell out the meaning of a scene in language that might be more fitting for a caption on a storyboard, but her sense of reality is unwavering.

Brandt’s Elizabeth comes to recognize that to rescue her son she must first contend with all that she’s left unresolved in her family. The details are overabundant, but the feeling is genuine.

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Brett Cooper doesn’t have many scenes as Cheryl Moody, the young woman in the videotape who is eventually discovered by the powers that be. But she nails every moment with gritty truth that enlarges the social purview of the drama. Toks Olagundoye, who plays Tamilla Woodward, Elizabeth’s longtime friend who was the only student of color at their private school for girls and still feels scarred by the experience, similarly opens the world of “Good Boys,” offering a perspective otherwise missing from the wealthy white male bastion of St. Joseph’s.

The narrative that Aguirre-Sacasa furnishes has nearly as much backstory as an Ibsen play — not all of it convincing. The plotting could be helpfully skimmed. The revelations are mathematically worked out, but their interlocking nature calls attention to their artificiality.

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“Good Boys” would be stronger if it explained less and insinuated more. But it’s impossible to look away from this tale of privilege exposed and held to account. Life and art may mirror each other in this familiarly sensational story, but the theater provides a better classroom than last year’s Senate hearing room.

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‘Good Boys’

Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays (check for exceptions), through July 21

Tickets: Start at $25

Info: (626) 356-7529 or PasadenaPlayhouse.org

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes


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