Griffin Theatre Company

Men are all palaver and what they can get. –Lily the caretaker’s daughter in James Joyce’s “The Dead”

Boy’s Life is the slick, vaguely reactionary magazine published by the Boy Scouts of America that has been telling boys for generations now how to fold the flag, how to find your way through the woods with a compass, and how to catch a fish almost as big as Dad’s.

What Boy’s Life never taught was how to get Dad out of the office on a Saturday to go fishing in the first place. Nor did Boy’s Life (or the Boy Scouts, for that matter) do a particularly good job of informing us of the importance of male friendships. Howard Korder’s flawless comedy Boy’s Life is about the painful time in men’s lives when they discover that giving up childish things means drifting away from their male friends. The play begins with three friends in their late 20s–Don, Jack, and Phil–hanging out together, wasting the evening away, just as they’ve wasted thousands of evenings before this. Jack tortures Don by asking him to “Name three things that happened in the 1970s,” while Phil, oblivious, listens to Emerson, Lake, and Palmer on his Walkman (“I haven’t heard this since college, you know?”).

These boy-men couldn’t be less ambitious, although their refusal to plan for the future hardly frees them from quiet desperation. Don regrets not becoming an astronaut, although he won’t do anything to achieve this dubious career goal. Phil’s job, whatever it is, bores him so much he can hardly talk about how great it is without sounding insincere: “Things are going really really great for me right now. Just fine. I have my own partition now, over at the office, they put up one of those, ah . . . so that’s really good.” And Jack, whose wife makes piles of money in investment banking, has no job at all–and no prospects. He’s a house husband, though it’s a role he denies, even when he’s at the park with his son Jason.

In nine very funny scenes, the play charts the trio’s inevitable drift apart, a drift that accelerates after Don falls for Lisa, a waitress who studies sculpting at the School of the Art Institute. Lisa, naturally, has little patience for Don’s boyish ways–“I’m not your mother”–and even less for his “creepy friends.” Jack, in turn, has zero tolerance for Lisa. Much of the second half of the play concerns this subtle, below-the-surface tug-of-war between Jack and Lisa for control of Don’s soul.

Korder has an excellent ear for dialogue, although it might be more accurate to say that he has an excellent ear for Mamet-esque dialogue. Korder shares both Mamet’s infatuation with the poetry of profanity–“Goddamn shit-eating asshole scumbags”–and his love of the hard-boiled poetry of male bonding–“We’re living in thrilling days, Don.” And like Mamet, Korder has learned the difficult art of snappy, clever dialogue:

Jack: Don, a toast, a very special toast, to the ladies. . . . Where would we be without them?

Don: We’d be nowhere.

Jack: We wouldn’t even be here.

Don: We wouldn’t even exist.

Jack: We would not.

Don: It’s a sobering thought.

Jack: It’s food for thought.

Don: It’s a thought to think (pause).

Jack: Well, no sense in blaming them for it now.

Even the plot is reminiscent of Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago–close friends find love affair interferes with friendship. And like Mamet, Korder doesn’t always treat “the ladies” very well. In fact, Korder’s women seem to come in only three varieties: insensitive, emotionally disturbed, and sarcastic and bitchy.

Of course, Korder’s similarity to Mamet may be more than coincidental. Boy’s Life was first performed in February 1988 by a theater company made up of former Mamet students (the Atlantic Theater Company) directed by one of Mamet’s poker–and theater–buddies (W.H. Macy) and performed at Lincoln Center, where a Mamet pal (Gregory Mosher) is artistic director. Still, Korder could do worse than to imitate a master like Mamet.

Every scene in the play works, every actor in the cast seems well-suited to the part he or she plays. Even, believe it or not, the scene changes are fun. Director Neil Wilson has done a good job steering the production away from baby-boomer stereotypes. Not an easy thing to do in a play as full of trendy, contemporary references as this one–everything from pasta class and anorexia nervosa to Elvis Costello and Eddie Haskell.

And it helps when your cast includes as many terrific actors as this. The charming and charismatic Nelson Russo, in particular, is a real find as Jack. By turns childish, manipulative, adulterous, and wickedly funny, Russo carries it off without a hitch. Tim Bakker look-alike David Williams, too, holds his own as the less complex Don.

Among the women, Jeanne M. Dwan, as Lisa, and Mona Mansour, as Karen, really stand out. Dwan in particular shows a real flair for comedy, able to get laughs with the most innocent-looking lines. Debra Schommer, too, should be given a big hand for turning one of those awful 80s-style blond bimbos–the kind of woman who asks, “What’s 10K?”–into a real person.