When people look back on their lives and say that they wish they were young again, they are not thinking about puberty—or if they are, they’re not remembering clearly. This betwixt and between phase, which must be negotiated, one way or another, is fraught with confusion. What are you, exactly—tadpole or frog? From day to day, you’re a slightly different blend of one or the other. Your mirror reveals a new self every time you look—none of it particularly pretty and some of it a bit grotesque.
Scottish playwrights Kieran Hurley and Gary McNair explore the murky pre-adult domain with candor and humor in Square Go, an appealing two-hander directed by Finn Den Hertog and featuring two fully adult actors, Daniel Portman and Gavin Jon Wright, portraying—respectively—Max and Stevie, a pair of 13-year-old besties who seem to transform, regularly, into each other’s biggest enemy. There are hilarious moments in the play, but Hurley and McNair don’t treat the characters in a condescending way.
Max and Stevie are, in some ways, clever kids. They understand, on a basic level, some facets of the adult world, and they can discuss it with a certain fluency and even sophistication. But they are only just beginning to experience adult feelings themselves, and that tug of war between knowing the world and not knowing it has become vicious. The boys have strong ideas of what an adult male is expected to be, but their own expectations for themselves are unrealistic and they fear they cannot or will not measure up.
It would be convenient for them to retreat into their child selves, but they are under incredible pressure from themselves and from others, not to look back. At one point, the know-it-all Stevie enumerates the “seven attributes of being a man, which include somewhat intangible qualities of character as “fearlessness” and “wits” but also the very tangible quality of “hairiness.” The question of how many “pubes” each of them has is an especially big deal. Stevie at one point denies he knows for sure, but then quickly admits to having 48.
The story unfolds on a bare stage, but the action, according to the published script, takes place in three different locations: in the boys’ toilets at a provincial high school, in Max and Stevie’s imaginations, and in the theatre itself. Square Go is a very theatrical play, with the actors interacting with audience members, who are encouraged to cheer the boys along during the challenges they create for each other. (There is a fair amount of audience participation, but don’t worry: the actors seem sensitive about not roping spectators into doing anything they’re not comfortable with.) The boys’ inner fantasies and fears are created largely through Peter Small’s spectacular lighting design and the original soundtrack by members of the indie rock band Frightened Rabbit.
The conflict in the story is a simple but pressing one. Max has been challenged to a “square go” (a schoolyard fight) by the loathsome and formidable Danny Guthrie, a boy who, at least superficially, embodies many of the aforementioned manly attributes that Stevie speaks of. Not only is he hirsute, he’s also, supposedly, sexually experienced—and he’s fearsome. There’s one hour until the big battle is set to begin, and we follow the interactions of the two boys in real time as Max’s nervousness expands into panic. (While Portman plays Max alone, Wright portrays characters other than Stevie—including Danny Guthrie, Max’s father, and the wise and likable physics teacher, Doctor Hobbins.)
Along with the increasing fear about the bullying Danny, Max also feels growing frustration with his friend. Ostensibly, Stevie is hanging out with him to offer support—a pep talk—for the coming fight. So, then, why does Stevie seem to be tearing him down, saying such things as, “Heaviest thing you’ve ever lifted is the burden of being a massive disappointment”? Early on, Max asks him point blank: “Fucksake, whose side are you on, Stevie?”
Both actors are excellent. They capture the playful, boyish aspects of the characters as well as the stilted, self-conscious half-formed adult qualities. They show, beautifully, how the expectations about what it is to be masculine can be at odds with the natural tendency to be sweet, supportive and inquisitive. These are physically strenuous roles, requiring much running about and other hyperactive early-adolescent bumptiousness. (Vicki Manderson is credited as movement director.)
The play’s many linguistic Scottish-isms (“didnae” for “did not,” for instance) may throw off American audience members a bit, but the challenge here is a little like dealing with Shakespeare. If you let the language wash over you, you’ll get the drift straight away.
Square Go (through June 30, 2019)
Brits Off Broadway 2019
Francesca Moody Productions, in association with Seared Productions
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-892-7999 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: 65 minutes with no intermission