It’s all in the timing, right? Well talk about near perfect timing. Sitting in the shadows of the child sexual abuse scandal currently stirring at Penn State, Wild Animals You Should Know strikes a similar cord. Though it is a far stretch to compare any of the characters in the play to the actual players in the allegations, the same questions are raised. Why? Wild Animals follows golden boy, and sexually hungry, Matthew and his best friend, the openly gay Jacob as they embark on the camping trip with their Boy Scout Troop. But days before their journey, Matthew accidently spies and discovers his troop leader, Rodney in his home engaging in homosexual acts. Matthew then makes it his mission to destroy Rodney by exposing him.
At the heart of the piece is Matthew, played with great wonder and skill by Jay Armstrong Johnson. Matthew, though potentially confused himself, is confident with everything about himself. He plays a far too convincing cocktease for Jacob. He is willing to experiment despite the consequences that may occur. Johnson finds the balance of ego and insecurity with ease. Despite his acts, you become engaged with his character. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Gideon Glick’s Jacob. Even though he may have discovered himself, he is still tepid. Jacob loves Matthew no matter how much Matthew pushes him away. Both Johnson and Glick play up the stock stereotypes given to their characters, but not once does it come off schlocky, just sincere. John Behlmann’s Rodney is trying just to live his life without opposition. Rodney is not “closeted,” he’s just private. When Matthew threatens to out Rodney, Behlmann finds the honesty of the character that he displayed in his character at the start of the piece. His tragic downfall is gut wrenching. With only the allegations at the audience’s disposal, you immediately have sympathy. Daniel Stewart Sherman as Larry provides the amusing comic relief, but serves a nice foil for Patrick Breen’s nerdy and lost Walter. Breen provides a solid performance as Matthew’s father and newfound troop volunteer. He seems to have great chemistry with all his scene partners, with the unfortunate exception of Marsha played by Alice Ripley. The major plot point for Breen’s Walter is he is thrust in going on the trip with his son in order to reconnect with him. Sadly Walter and Matthew have only one scene alone together. Their relationship is very much hearsay which is a bit of a problem for what should be a poignant and powerful scene toward the end of the play. Nevertheless, both Breen and Johnson give standout performances.
Thomas Higgins’s script is full of wit and charm and excitement. He has taken an oft too contemporary topic and given it new meaning. What I appreciate most about the story is he allows the audience to make up their minds as to what happened by offering both sides of the story. Higgins writes great comedy and genuine drama which balance each other seamlessly. I have a feeling Thomas Higgins will be a playwright that will be seen in New York for quite some time. Trip Cullman does a brilliant job giving his Wild Animals life. He ensured that reality is present during the quirkier moments and made sure that the scene transitions were watchable. Cullman and lighting designer David Weiner do some clever storytelling at the top of some of the transitions. By simply highlighting an actor or silhouetting them, the audience understands the emphasis of why the scene ended when it did. The most striking is when the stage goes dark sans a bit of light on the faces of Matthew and Rodney scenes before their showdown. Andromache Chalfant’s set was simple and effective, allowing for various locations to be suggested with just a touch of scenic element.
Wild Animals You Should Know is a witty yet thought provoking piece. In the light of today’s Penn State scandal, the question in this play still remains “why”. Why is it so dirty and terrifying that a seemingly harmless gay man surrounds himself with young boys? We jump to conclusions but regardless of truth, the end result will always remain the same. Who really is the victim?