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A ripped-from-the-headlines story about a high school sex tape gone viral sets up a compelling premise but doesn't live up to its potential.

Theater Review (NYC Off-Broadway): ‘I Know What Boys Want’ Explores Sex Tape Culture

I Know What Boys Want Ego Actus
Jesse Shane Bronstein and Olivia Scott in ‘I Know What Boys Want’ at Theatre Row’s Lion Theatre. Photo by Al Foote III

I Know What Boys Want is a great idea still waiting to happen, a topical “issue play” about a high school sex tape gone viral and its ramifications for the people involved. Playwright Penny Jackson and the Ego Actus company under the direction of Joan Kane start things out promisingly, with a small gaggle of private-school kids texting each other and bubbling on about a graphic sex tape made at an alcohol- and drug-fueled party and starring a classmate.

But the production doesn’t fulfill the promise of its concept. Undermined by an unfocussed script and shallow characterizations, potentially good performances can’t flower and a compelling story can’t crystallize.

Centering the story is Vicky (Olivia Scott in a strong, focussed performance), the victim of the surreptitious videotaping. Behind the iPhone camera was Oliver (Jesse Shane Bronstein), the buddy of her boyfriend Roger (Alex Esola in a subtly potent portrayal struggling to emerge).

Unfortunately Jackson uses many of the characters to represent cultural or sociological phenomena rather than to make this ripped-from-the-headlines story feel real. Vicky’s mother (Lué McWilliams in an admirable effort) is more than anything else an emblem for the second-wave feminism that Vicky rejects in one of several inauthentic-sounding mother-daughter talks. Awkward, unpopular Hannah (Charlotte Frøyland) is the quintessential bullying victim. Ted (Alexander Nifong) is the surfer-dude transplanted to tough New York City, though with no Manhattan atmosphere whatsoever, the action could be in Anytown, USA (aside from the fact that these rich characters live in apartments rather than houses).

And the play wants to have it two ways with Oliver: First he’s a starkly drawn sociopath and budding child pornographer, such that his ongoing friendship with the decent Roger makes no sense. Then the script grafts a revenge motive and traumatic backstory onto his character to belatedly and ineffectually flesh it out.

Through a long sequence of brief scenes the story blows in too many directions and dissipates. Thus its climax with Vicky’s own act of revenge is too welcome, momentarily cathartic but then giving way to a too-long sequence of closing scenes offering unconvincing epilogues for various characters.

A pleasingly played secondary story of a budding romance between the outcast Hannah and the fish-out-of-water Ted and a nascent friendship between Vicky and Hannah suggest that the troubled, always-on milieu of these high schoolers still leaves room for healthy friendships and dating, though as the exception rather than the rule. For the most part, though, this is a frustrating evening of theater, the more so because the premise has so much potential and the cast tries hard. It pains me to say it, but Walker’s performance aside, Lifetime movies do this stuff better.

I Know What Boys Want runs through August 2 at Theatre Row‘s Lion Theatre.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is a Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.

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