Griffin Theatre Company

Life is tough for Henry Aptacar: it’s bad enough to be on the brink of puberty, with all the uncertainties that go with that–about sex, peer status, one’s place in the universe–but his parents have been fighting a lot lately, his father might be having an affair, his best friend Paula has been reading Lady Chatterly’s Lover, and on top of all that it’s 1963 and the president has gone and gotten himself killed! Since trouble close to home is always more threatening than trouble far away, Henry concentrates his energies on the president’s assassination, and the many theories about it become analogies for his own faulty perceptions of the arcane adult world. By 1966 Henry’s obsession–which he shares with his equally bored and restless comrades–leads him to suspect that the mysterious new neighbor across the street is none other than the “second gunman” who allegedly assisted Lee Harvey Oswald. It turns out that John Halladay, the target of this de facto investigation, does have a guilty secret, but he himself is its primary victim. Eventually Henry is declared a hero, but he knows the uncomfortable truth about who is responsible for whose assassination.

Though 30 years after That Fateful Day accounts of Kennedy’s death continue to proliferate, the journey from child to adult is universal, independent of time, place, or circumstance. Tom Leopold in his Henry and the Second Gunman avoids the cliches of this now-overworked genre by relentlessly focusing on specifics: the mother who dresses up in cocktail dress and high heels for an evening of watching TV and falling asleep on the sofa, the teenage girl with a heart condition who cheerfully accepts the probability she’ll die before the age of 30. Leopold creates a microcosm of a chaotic universe, where people’s actions are guided only by the myths of the great heroes–and the fates of presidents. He meticulously traces step-by-step the process by which coincidence and conjecture are strung together until even adults are drawn in and the innocent object of their fury surrenders. His refusal to opt for easy answers makes for a two-and-a-half-hour play, but it also means the tragedy seems not only plausible but inevitable.

Making his professional debut in the role of Henry, 15-year-old David Jenkins delivers an amazing performance, displaying a presence and maturity that would be remarkable in an actor twice his age. As Halladay, the man doomed to be all things to all people, Warren Davis–an actor long restricted by typecasting to “big guy” roles–delivers his best performance to date, giving the weary fugitive a quiet wisdom and integrity (but stopping well short of saintliness. Under the sensitive direction of Richard Barletta the rest of the well-integrated ensemble likewise rein themselves in to produce thoughtful, uncaricatured portraits. As the most zealous conspiracy mongers, Chris Bruzzini and Ghuon “Max” Chung wisely avoid the temptation to make their characters cartoonish, and even chronic overplayers such as Michael Termine and G. Scott Thomas pull back to portray men no more absurd than small men usually are. Stephanie Gerckens’s set and Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes evoke surface serenity and hidden menace, while William Massolia’s sound design grounds us firmly and precisely in the period.

It’s easy for us, safely distant from the paranoia and infectious hysteria of those repressive years, to recognize the persecution of blameless citizens. But we have our own witch-hunts to conduct nowadays, and Henry and the Second Gunman is a timely reminder of the dangers when naive children seek saviors and settle for scapegoats.