Adam Szymkowicz’ play Rare Birds, which has just been produced by The Red Fern Theatre Company at the 14th Street Y (off-off-Broadway), is a study of high school bullying. I’m going to tell you the plot, so beware – I include a spoiler! I’m doing it because it needs to be discussed in detail.
Dylan and Mike bully Evan mercilessly. They beat him up at school and execute a cyberbullying scam that leads him to make a video that he thinks is going to Jenny, the girl he’s after. Actually, of course, it’s going to Dylan, who shows it to the school student body. Worse, Dylan, who’s the lead bully, shows up at Evan’s bedroom window and gives him a gun, telling him to shoot himself. Evan makes a suicide video and is about to blow his brains out when Jenny shows up at his window. Mike has sent her, after Dylan told him about giving Evan the gun. Jenny saves Evan by validating his worth.
There’s also a subplot concerning Evan’s mother and her boyfriend, Ralph. Ralph tries to teach Evan to fight. “Sometimes the big kids pick on the smaller kids” Ralph reminds him. But Evan trusts no one, and, besides, he’s in denial: “I don’t need to know how to defend myself.”
Mr. Szymkowicz’ portrait of the young man is complex. He shows Evan to be hostile to his mother and Ralph, and we can see in his scenes with Ralph how intense his Oedipal complex is. We can see what a dork he is when he approaches Jenny. “How has your day been thus far?” he asks her (she rebuffs him). And in his suicide video, in the play’s most truthful moment, he says “This is all your fault. I want the guilt to eat you up.”
The core of the bullying problem, we learn, is that Dylan is gay, and attracted to the straight Evan. We know Dylan’s gay because he tries to give Mike a feel while they’re wrestling. What’s more, Jenny says that she saw Dylan naked, apparently lewdly so, with her last boyfriend.
Certainly, repressed homosexual urges account for a lot of bullying among boys. But Dylan’s sexuality isn’t repressed; he’s sexually active. Rare Birds is a regression to the homophobic depiction of the gay as predator. The bullies call Evan a faggot; Dylan is the gay as gay-basher. Even Dylan’s name is derogatory – it suggests one of the Columbine killers, who were called gay by certain parties.
Evan is redeemed when he kisses a girl – that is, because he’s straight. When Ralph tries to teach Evan to fight, Evan accuses him of molesting him, for no reason. Within the context of the play there’s no positive gay perspective.
The script is well crafted, never flagging, with carefully wrought dialogue. But Mr. Szymkowicz resorts to contrivance when Jenny shows up just in time to save Evan’s life. More importantly, he doesn’t discuss the problem of bullying thoroughly. After nearly killing himself, Evan is saved miraculously. Mr. Szymkowicz never suggests how to deal directly with being victimized.
Scott Ebersold has directed masterfully. He keeps the stage fluid and dynamic, and he allows his actors to shine. The entire cast performs well, although the two bullies aren’t given much to do except to be mean. Tracey Gilbert smiles impotently as Evan’s mother, knowing she can’t discipline him. Robert Buckwalter is suitably patient as Ralph. Jake Glassman gives us terrific work as Evan, truthfully revealing various contradictory aspects of the character as the script demands.
And so Rare Birds is a well-executed production of a script that lacks cultural truth. In this topsy-turvy dramatic world, the gays bully the straights. Mr. Szymkowicz needs to rethink his concept.