American high schools are more than just places kids go to have their intellectual curiosity extinguished. They are also, for many sensitive and socially awkward souls, something very like torture chambers. For these youngsters, the hallways are gauntlets. For them, sex is a perilous trial they suspect they'll never negotiate, should they even get the chance to try, which they probably won't. For them, each rare friend is a life preserver in a rough and shark-infested sea.
Some of these kids, through no fault of their own, are too dumb to keep up with their peers. Others are too scared. Still others are too weird, too smart, or too broken. The Storytelling Ability of a Boy is about two kids in the latter three categories, and it captures the emotional realities, if not the social particulars, of high school life better than any play by a 50-ish-year-old man ought to.
Storytelling follows outcasts Peck and Dora and their English teacher, Caitlin, through a few weird weeks during Peck's senior year of high school in an unnamed American town. (I think Dora is supposed to be a junior, though this is never made clear.) The kids look like indie rockers. Peck (Marshall Pailet), with his mess of greasy black hair, black-rimmed glasses, and awkward ensembles that make him seem vaguely disproportionate, comes off like the world's least-fashionable Weezer fan. Dora (Bethany Anne Lind) is more into Doc Martens. Her too-short trousers, the industrial equivalent of Capris, make her look like a butch dock-worker or a skinhead curb-stomper. (Attiring the kids in this way is one of the production's few missteps; nowadays, the intellectual indie rockers are the cool kids, not the pariahs.)
Peck and Dora rely on each other for companionship and survival, and Storytelling would be a better play if it focused on their relationship entirely. Their language is florid (Dora, when faced with an unpleasant proposition, remarks, "I'd rather have my vagina stretched over a fire extinguisher") and infused by the actors with a desperate intensity, as full of glee and terror as your own most vividly remembered year of high school. Lind and Pailet pile masks on top of masks, lowering the temperature in the theater by successive degrees of feigned cool. But from beneath the weight of Peck and Dora's artifice, the actors clearly broadcast the pair's terrible neediness — Peck's through droll fatalism (after suffering a terrible beating at the hands of some jocks, he says to himself, "This is not my happy place," and something in his voice makes you wonder how nuts he'd get if he couldn't think of anything cute to say) and Dora's through anger.
It would be nice to watch the kids' interactions without having to worry about where Lewis' plot is headed. Storytelling is good and even brilliant in its individual scenes, such as the one in which Peck begins narrating a fantasy for Dora in which Dora has sex with (the recently deceased) Pavarotti. Dora, enacting the fantasy, is soon writhing across the stage, screaming: "Please, Luciano! Just one little death rattle could get 'er done!" The anthropology at work here is fascinating. Peck, a writer, is showing off his verbal facility in the hopes of impressing Dora. Dora's exaggerated hip-thrusting and back-arching is an attempt to impress Peck with her sexual sophistication. And by being so interested in Pavarotti, they are showing off their cultural literacy, which distinguishes them from their tormentors.
That the actors are working on every one of these levels is miraculous. If the writing had stayed so smart throughout the play, there's really no limit to how good Storytelling could have been. Unfortunately, Storytelling has a third character — Caitlin, the English teacher (Laura Carbonell) — around whom swirls a story of really breathtaking harebrainedness. She serves well as Storytelling's narrator — in a neat literary flourish, she and Peck actually try to wrestle the story away from each other — but as a character, she can't help but knock around the stage inhabited by Lewis' more delicate, younger characters like the proverbial bull in the proverbial china shop. About 20 minutes before curtain call, Caitlin runs away with the narrative and the narrative's sense.
We knew there might be trouble earlier, when, inviting Peck for some private instruction at her home, she barely bats an eye when Dora whips out a bottle of Jack Daniels and, within minutes, is sharing shots. This corruptor of minors is actually supposed to be the hero of the story: We are actually supposed to cheer when, in the wake of Peck's beating, she goes after the perpetrator's car with Dora's nail gun. And just wait till you get to the lesbian subplot...
Storytelling unravels when the virginal Peck, who is in love with the virginal Dora, convinces her to have sex with him and finds he cannot rise to the occasion. It is then that he receives his beating; that he is taken to Caitlin's house to recover from his injuries (really?!), witnesses a thing he shouldn't witness, and threatens to go on a rampage. The particulars of all of this require us to suspend so much disbelief about the realities of teacher-student relationships — and, among other things, about the moral implications of slurping back bourbon with one's emotionally deranged 17-year-old pupils — that we ultimately think our hero-cum-narrator is either a creep or a criminal, depending upon your tolerance for gross unprofessionalism.
You may be able to discount this by remembering that, after all, The Storytelling Ability of a Boy is supposed to be about the storytelling ability of a boy, not his teacher, and that plenty of puberty-stricken males might fantasize about being nursed back to health by hot, tipsy English teachers with Sapphic inclinations. But this is not Florida Stage's Young Playwright's Series, and if we wanted to watch a teenaged boy fantasize, Manalapan's Plaza del Mar is probably not the steamiest place to do it.
But we came here for drama and all that that implies: burrowing into the guts of the human condition and seeing what lives there and why. Tickets to Florida Stage are $45 to $48, and I'd pay a good deal more than that to see the look on Dora's face when she decides to drop the bullshit and make love to Peck. Even she can't tell if she's doing it out of mercy, desire, or loneliness, and you can read all three in Lind's lovely face. Who cares if the exercise ends awkwardly? Merely to begin was more audacious than most grownups will ever be again.