Every time I see a one-person play, it’s hard not to evaluate the form as a whole through the prism of each individual take on it.
The latest: Dennis Kelly’s Girls & Boys, starring and only starring Carey Mulligan, which Audible — yes, THAT Audible — imported across the Atlantic Ocean from the Royal Court Theatre to the company’s new home at off-Broadway’s Minetta Lane Theatre. Lyndsey Turner’s production, which premiered in London earlier this year, stands as a testament to the crucial difference between one-person shows that tell the audience a story, and ones that perform the story for us.
Conventional intuition would make you believe that the latter is the superior approach, enthralling the viewer with all the deliberately-limited bells and whistles at the disposal of this solo genre. Though Turner and her creative team — particularly set designer Es Devlin — add deeper meaning to Kelly’s periodically simplistic text, Mulligan still seems to feel a need to perform more than simply tell, as if the story on its own isn’t enough to maintain the audience’s attention.
Mulligan’s not the most naturalistic of performers, which of course isn’t a problem in itself. In much of her work, she wields natural theatricality to impart inner truth through the guise of outer fiction. But since she’s the primary — and, for much of it, only — vehicle communicating the tale to us in Girls & Boys, this performativity almost gets in the way of her storytelling, sapping it of the sort of present stakes that one-person shows rely on to consistently engage. Her words have a tendency to flow in one ear and out the other in a haze of artificiality. When you tell, we lean in to listen, riveted by the threads of the yarn that are best when they can stand on their own, regardless of how they’re presented. When you perform, we can too easily sit back and let the story come to us, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Then again, there’s ample thematic justification for her acting style here (SPOILERS AHEAD); she plays a character who, after suffering through a devastating tragedy, understandably doesn’t want to face the cold hard truth of her life. Thus, she must dress it up in alienating fantasy, almost treating her tragic past like a sort of untrue spectacle. How else can she get through her heart-wrenching tale?
And yet, Girls & Boys doesn’t prove as heart-wrenching as it should. For a majority of the duration, I kept waiting for Ireland to introduce the inevitable intrigue. By the time it comes, this impatience prevented me from being sufficiently invested in it to have the intended effect. Defenders of the play could once again cite thematic justification for this dramaturgical restraint; the text ultimately questions how much we as a society, and as a collection of individuals, can detect in others, particularly men — the perpetuators of so much of society’s violence — that they’re about to commit terrible atrocities. It’s almost impossible to, because toxic male behavior is so prevalent in the lives of women, as Mulligan’s story repeatedly illustrates.
To hammer home this point, the unremarkability of the early portions of Mulligan’s story might have been by design; it reinforces the notion that it’s not possible to predict when the regular bullshit of male behavior — which Mulligan views as harmless, and treats as lightly as much of society — will transform into dangerous toxic masculinity (I still question whether Ireland needed 105 minutes to elucidate this notion; a 30-minute short play probably would’ve sufficed). The survivors of these guys’ subsequent reigns of terror should never be blamed; too many distant observers today always fault those in the orbit of an eventual killer for not realizing the imminent threat. Girls & Boys can be interpreted as a rebuke to that reaction, a sort of defense of the completely innocent.
When should she have known she was living with a potential killer? Should her future husband’s odd come-on — a joke that implicitly objectifies women — have been a dead giveaway? Of course not. How about his manic reaction to the news that she’s pregnant? Or when he explained that he couldn’t tolerate her success over his? And that’s not even mentioning all the other men in her life, like the geriatric who makes a move on her AND her 18-year-old associate, IN THE WORKPLACE. Should she have subsequently alerted the authorities that he might murder someone?! Shit, even her male dog likes to poop in the hallway, a destructive act in opposition to what he knows he’s supposed to do.
Toxic masculinity is such a everyday occurrence for women that they can’t be expected to separate the normal from the abnormal. Of course, we must strive to create a society in which it’s ALL abnormal, and seen for the gateway drug to death it could always turn into, as it does for Mulligan. Even from a young age, boys just seem more drawn to violence than girls, one of the main differences between the titular girls and boys (think about how often that phrase is reversed; ‘boys and girls’ is the common ordering, listing first those who expect more power — and can’t handle when they don’t control it, and thus everything).
Devlin’s set design connects to this concept. Though she spends much of the play regaling her story to us from within a small white box, we periodically witness Mulligan entering one of her own memories, attempting to revive her children while also removing her husband from the picture entirely (thus the reason he doesn’t appear onstage). For these sequences, the white box is replaced in a blackout with a meticulously-surreal version of her family’s old apartment. For these scenes in which she’s interacting with the memory of her children, only a few items on the set are colored, thus looking realer; the rest is an unnatural blue, symbolizing her pervasive sadness spawned by an inhuman atrocity.
Whenever we return to her home life, different portions of the set are colored, never the same from one scene to the next. It’s a reminder that, as much as the unavoidable structure of one-person shows may make us believe that we can know every part of a story, we can never color in every part of someone’s life. There will always be portions kept from being colored in, and these unknown, uncolored parts may lead someone to act in unimaginable ways that end in bloodshed, thus the reason these random objects are always colored red. He turned her life into the stuff of memories, of fiction — thus the set looks fabricated — yet she’s still in control of what she can be.
To further defend Ireland’s text, he understands that the themes of a one-person show should always justify this obviously-noticeable dramaturgy. She’s the sort of woman that created her life for herself, taking hold of as much agency as possible over the course of her own narrative. Thus, she’s the one telling us this history, which isn’t his story, even though his final actions try to define it; it’s her story. He couldn’t cope with the fact that she’s the type of woman who CAN tell her own story, who won’t just bow to the oppressiveness of his — and society’s — heteronormative narratives. Though he ultimately robs her of her most beloved flesh and blood — thus the reason she’s alone on stage, an indicator of her newfound loneliness — he can’t take her memories away.
Her willingness to keep the legacy of her children alive by acting out this story over and over again, night after night, is an act of defiance against men whose fear of the new world order — and their more equal place in it — makes them want to reassert their dominance by dictating the narrative. Given how much more frequently men take center stage in one-person shows than women, this idea adopts further resonance within this imbalanced landscape (it’s…interesting that women rarely feel as much of a desire— and obviously weren’t given as many opportunities — to assert their dominance of a stage, to be the showman, the sole man in charge of the show).
He might turn her world blue with permanent sadness, but she can still paint those walls with her words. He tries containing her in the box in which she starts the show, but her insistence on wrestling back control of her narrative periodically opens up that confined world into her idealized domesticity. The set that represents her departed domestic life looks fake, because it is — it’s just another of her creations, and she can’t bring back her children, no matter how much she pretends they’re there. But at least her new setting is more expansive and colorful than her initial box.
And don’t underestimate the importance of people like Mulligan’s character telling their stories. Before delving into the gory details of its horrific conclusion, she prepares us by insisting that what she’s about to say, “did not happen to you, and it’s not happening now.” As if that should soften the blow. Mulligan discusses how society was invented to protect its citizens. Everyone sitting in the Minetta Lane Theatre knows men keep killing innocents. We might not know them personally, and it might not be happening right this second, but it’s bound to happen again soon. We know it’ll happen because we’ve heard these stories too many times before. We need to keep hearing them, with the sort of gory details Ireland vividly utilizes, until it’s a trend of the past. When will this fiction based on too much fact compel us to do something about it?