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Beautiful Boy — Walnut Street Theatre — Independence Studio on 3

Beautiful Boy 2 -- interior “Beautiful Boy” is a rare current example of the well-made play.

It’s straightforward, new scenes build on previous scenes, and its characters are clearly drawn and speak concisely. It has no modern tricks like jumping back and forth in time, symbolism in place of plot, or characters who are ambivalent. Eric Conger keeps his play on an express track from its beginning to its conclusion. He is not trying to dazzle with art or experiment with dramatic form. He is a telling a simple story in an uncomplicated way, and his play, as performed by David Stradley’s cast at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3, is a satisfying piece that keeps you involved throughout and touches on matters of concern, such as the search for one’s physical identity and secrecy and/or privacy laws that one has to circumvent to obtain factual information.

“Beautiful Boy” is the flip side of the current Oscar-nominated movie, “Philomena.” As opposed to depicting a woman who overcomes obstacles to find her son, Conger’s play, a world premiere, concentrates on a middle-age man, Bill Moore, who, following the death of his adoptive parents, seeks to find the people who are responsible for his birth.

“Beautiful Boy” is part mystery, part indictment of a system that hides information in the name of protecting one person’s privacy from another’s curiosity, and mostly a good, strong tale about a man who just wants to learn truth about his identity for the sake of knowing it. Conger is astute enough to allow characters to give voice to both sides of the privacy issue, but he obviously sides with the attitude of his protagonist, Bill, in thinking transparency is the best policy.

Issues aside, Conger excels most in storytelling. A plot is set afoot, and you always want to know what happens next. “Beautiful Boy’s” greatest virtue is the way it takes you from point to point without ever losing your interest or trying your patience. Though the play is simple, it is never pat. It drives forward on its own steam and takes you, the audience, with it. The emotions, Bill and other characters, such as his wife, Rita, express add empathy because they are natural reactions and expected. Authenticity is a hallmark of Conger’s piece and of Stradley’s production. Jeffrey Coon, as Bill, continues his season of varied and laudable performances by so completely and so believably playing an average guy on a logical quest. Coon lets you see Bill’s doubts and disappointment and share in his triumphs and the discoveries that encourage him to proceed in his hunt. By keeping things so real, Coon, as focal character, makes “Beautiful Boy” dramatic and compelling. The path for the audience is gentle. “Beautiful Boy” is not a journey that involves soaring highs or deep lows. It’s one that includes some mild upheavals and slight depressions, but they are enough to give Conger’s play texture and give you a chance to respond along with Coon’s character in terms of the roadblocks and victories he faces.

You may be able to tell I want to praise “Beautiful Boy” as a good, solid, thorough work of theater without overselling it. It doesn’t sizzle with brilliance or impress with wit. It engages with honesty and with the elements of deft storytelling that have entertained people since the time of Homer.

I keep using the word “simple” because in “Beautiful Boy,” simplicity is a virtue. It wants to acquaint you with one man’s search to find information to which he thinks he is entitled to have, and that we, watching him, hope he receives. It is a basic play about basic things and is refreshing and enjoyable because of it. About the only thing I would change in the play is the opening sequence, which gives a preview of a subsequent scene. “Beautiful Boy” doesn’t need the tease. It would do just as well avoiding its one bow to modernity and beginning at Point One.

My cavil aside, the first scene does not spoil nor enhance “Beautiful Boy.” Once the play gets into motion, you tend to forget the opening until its lines are repeated in a different setting later in the show.

Stradley and his company are to be congratulated for doing everything in proportion and remaining in perfect tone with Conger’s script.

Conger, of course, touches on issues that arise from Bill’s search. He addresses attitudes toward adoption. Early in the play, Bill is stricken when he hears one of his relatives say a valuable property Bill will inherit from his mother should stay in the family. Bill naturally infers the relative does not accept the woman who raised him from birth as his mother. To members of his family, he remains the other, someone who is adopted and not really a Moore.

Frankly, this surprised me. I, like many, have relatives I know are adopted, but I never think of them as anything but members of my family, one of them a very close member. I have written recently about a woman who talks about adoption and who her father and mother are from her point of view, and, I would say, from all important points of view. It was interesting to hear what Bill experiences. It is also important to note Bill does not set out to look for his birth parents because he rejects his adoptive parents, who are in all ways but the biological his actual parents, but because he is curious to see the people who made him and believes they are, in turn, curious about him.

“Beautiful Boy” also addresses privacy. Because Bill was adopted from Connecticut, a state that by law seals adoption records, he cannot have access to files and information that would have been handed over without ceremony in Massachusetts or several other states. Merit can be found is both sides of the argument. One can debate whether a parent who relinquished a child to adoption or a child who was adopted has a right to know anything about the child or the biological parents. You can also argue that such information should be available. The benefit of one policy over the other might best be determined on a case-by-case basis. That, though, would always necessitate an intermediary or a judicial decision, which could be time-consuming and cumbersome.

Bill would probably opt for full disclosure. His biological parents and the Catholic Church, which arranged Bill’s adoption, would take the opposite point of view. As in “Philomena,” the Catholic hierarchy is not seen in a favorable light in “Beautiful Boy.” It comes across as self-righteous, cloaked, and obstructionist.

Conger also adds some drama by regularly showing the effect of Bill’s search on his and Rita’s marriage and by a few references to Bill’s having been laid off from his long-held position as a music teacher in the Missouri town in which he lived most of his life.

It was on the Independence Studio stage that Jeffrey Coon gave what I consider to be his breakthrough performance. In “Beautiful Boy,” he shows his mettle as an actor. The Independence Studio is intimate. At most, a performer is two yards from the audience and, often he or she is toe-to-toe or eye-to-eye with someone sitting front center.

Coon could contain his performance, and all Bill thinks and feels, within that confining space. After using his size and large voice in “Parade” and “Cinderella” A Musical Panto” earlier this season, Coon showed his quieter, more internal talents are just as effective. You care about his Bill and want him to succeed. Any buffet or snide comment he faces is taken to heart. Any headway he makes is received with great contentment. The audience likes and roots for Bill, and that is Coon’s doing.

Coon is subtle in his approach to Bill’s emotions. He sneers and takes a sarcastic tone when he relates the story about the “a real member of the family” to Rita. He lets you see Bill’s angst and confusion through well-acted physical gestures like rubbing his forehead, holding his hands before him as if seeking an answer from the air, or frowning just enough to get Bill’s point across.

Coon’s is a well measured turn that adds to his resume of fine performances. We already know his next engagements  are as Mr. Bratt in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”  this spring at the Walnut and as Gomez in “The Addams Family” for the Media Theatre in the fall.

Carla Belver plays two roles but registers more strongly as an a nun who lives with terminal cancer and resides in a hospice.

No hothouse flower or a woman who speaks in soft, pontifical tones, Belver’s Sister Richie is a plain-spoken realist who has both a sense of humor and down-to-earth compassion enough to understand Bill’s motives and the Church’s attitude toward adoption. She also voices the point of view of mothers who opt for adoption.

Belver’s Sister Richie is a woman who is accustomed to obedience but has enough rebellion in her to have welcomed John XXIII’s Vatican 2 reforms. She has seen life from several angles and can offer perspective in matter-of-fact tones that contrasts some of what Bill has to say. Belver adds the warmth to the coldness that is in some of Sister Richie’s words. As always, she gives a performance that shows the humanity of her character above all else.

Alicia Roper scores highly in all of her roles. As Rita, she is understanding while remaining a bit brittle and content to watch Bill’s journey, which she is against at first, from the sidelines. A Mid-Western WASP, Rita is also quick to point out the difference between the way a Catholic and Protestant would regard certain matters and rituals. She makes Rita loving while wittily conveying her emotional distance from Bill’s plan.

As a manager in Connecticut bureau of records, Roper is a Gorgon who literally lays down the law when Bill has brief possession of a document to which the Nutmeg State says he’s not entitled. You have the urge to punch his character, and that’s a sign of strong acting.

Roper also does well as a nun with advanced Alzheimer’s disease.

Phillip Brown has fun with his characters. He is fly and worldly, rasta curls and all, as a guy who encounters Bill in a Hartford hall of records. Wig off, he is arch, suave and cucumber cool as an investigator who assists the adopted in getting information about their bio parents.

Elena Bossler is funny as the unimpressed nurse who heads the hospice where Bill finds Sister Richie. She is also fine as one of the clerks that stymies Bill’s search. She may a little too animated as one of Bill’s former students who Has successfully learned the identity of her birth parents.

Stradley’s production is taut and on the mark. Conger’s play is all it has to be with no unnecessary frills or grandstanding. “Beautiful Boy” is one of the most satisfying plays so far in the 2013-14 season. The Walnut should be proud to mount this world premiere.

“Beautiful Boy” runs through Sunday, March 9 at the Walnut Independence Studio on 3, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.  Tickets range from $40 to $30 and can be obtained by calling 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787 or going online to www.walnutstreettheatre.org.

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