At the 59E59 Theater’s world premiere of A Real Boy, the setting is a kindergarten classroom, but it’s clear that in Stephen Kaplan’s play, lessons of acceptance cannot be learned as easy as A-B-C. Two parents, who also happen to be puppets, Peter (Brian Michael) and Mary Ann Myers (Jason Allan Kennedy George) clash with the earnest, but often heavy-handed kindergarten teacher, Miss Terry (Jenn Remke), about how they are raising their adopted son, Max (Kelley Selznick, in the performance I attend). Miss Terry worries about Max, expressing concern that he only has and colors with black and white crayons, thus limiting his creativity and potential. Peter states that black and white is the way puppets choose to live: simplified. And indeed, the puppets themselves are monochromatic and their home, which is offset from the main space, the colorful classroom, and resembles a puppetry stage, is also starkly without hues. Why should they introduce these complexities to their son? The school should respect their beliefs, and protect him from being bullied by the other children: “If we were Jewish I would hope that you wouldn’t feed him a bacon shrimp cheeseburger just to open up his eyes so he could know what it tasted like,” Peter argues.
Despite protests from the parents and Principal Klaus (Jamie Geiger), it becomes Terry’s mission to raise Max as she deems fit in her classroom, setting off a conflict between ideological differences. Eventually a lawyer, Jilly Lambert (Katie Braden), and Rebecca Landel--who never fails to correct the necessary parties that she is a congressperson, not a congresswoman--(played with comedic skill by a scene stealing, Danie Steel), get involved in the battle. The Myers parents and Miss Terry both believe they have Max’s best interest at heart, but they never ask him what he wants. Instead, they fight for what they believe; they forget about who they are fighting for and who he is growing up to be.
The play deals with the essential ideas of self-acceptance and acceptance of others, and the emotional intensity of the performers is commendable, but, the use of the puppets was a hindrance rather than an enhancement to metaphor and emotion. I wanted to see Kennedy George’s face as Mary grappled with what was best for Max, but I was distracted by the clumsiness of the expressionless puppet. Selznick also gives a moving performance and their doe-eyed, vulnerable portrayal of Max was a highlight. When Max patiently teaches his father to mend a puppet string, it is clear that if they would just pause and listen, a child could teach them a thing or two.