I’ve come to expect that a barebones production will involve, at some level, an investigation of masculinity. Barebones’ artistic director Patrick Jordan seems drawn to plays that feature hyper-masculine characters – a character type he clearly revels in playing – yet, to his great credit, his productions are uncannily adept at shining a light on the absurdity and toxicity of hyper-masculinity, even as they offer a sympathetic peek into the inner drives and external pressures that shape men’s behavior. The work Jordan produces consistently manages to tap into, and expose for scrutiny, the dysfunctional patterns of white male thought and behavior that, among other things, have created an economic and social system hostile to gender and racial equality and elected a racist and misogynist to the U.S. presidency.
Jordan finds an artistic kindred spirit in playwright John Pollono, whose play Small Engine Repair he produced in 2015 (and which I described at the time as “testosterone fueled”). Pollono’s new play, Rules of Seconds, uses the Brechtian technique of historicization to offer a deconstruction of the absurd rules and codes of conduct that establish and maintain white male privilege at the cost of social sanity and equity. Set in mid-nineteenth century Boston, the play depicts a world in which life is governed by an arcane (and archaic) code of honor, encapsulated in a set of rules known as the “code duello.” The reciting of these rules, by the delightfully deadpan Jack Erdie, punctuates and structures the plot of the play, which centers on a conflict between alpha-male Walter Brown (Cotter Smith), the “most dangerous man” in Boston, and the Leeds family. Nathaniel “Wings” Leeds (Connor McCanlus), an OCD sufferer, has inadvertently offended Brown’s honor, resulting in a challenge to a duel. The sensitive and meek “Wings” enlists the help of his estranged brother, James (Patrick Jordan), a well-known and previously “successful” duelist, to find a way around the ordeal; but it turns out that Brown is merely using the code of honor as a smokescreen to exact revenge against their mother, Martha (Robin Walsh), for an incident in the distant past, so Brown stubbornly insists that “Wings” meet him on the dueling ground.
Alternately wry and outrageous in tone, the play pushes a number of contemporary hot buttons. Chief among those is the way power and wealth make entitled monsters of white men. Brown – who humiliates Martha in a particularly cruel way – might have seemed a caricature of a man two years ago, but after Trump and Weinstein and #MeToo he seems all too depressingly real. The confounding manner through which the white working class has been convinced to direct its rage and frustration against people of color instead of against the 1% who are profiting off of their misery also finds expression in this play, along with the ways toxically masculine “codes” of behavior intersect with racism, homophobia, and gender inequality.
Melissa Martin has directed the production with bold strokes, often quoting film and television references to drive home the point about the pervasiveness of “masculine honor” as a cultural trope. Musical references to Westerns, as well as a loud “door slam” sound effect reminiscent of the iconic “dun-dun” from Law and Order, gesture away from the world of the play to remind us of how eagerly and avidly we consume representations of strongmen and bullies (sound design is by Dave Bjornson). The production takes a while to hit its stride, however: the first act struggles to find the right “mustache-twirling” melodramatic tone, and while it has solid comedic moments, it’s not until the second act that the ensemble embraces the absurdity and outrageousness that the play’s comedy demands and starts to shade – in a good way – into the cartoonish. It’s there, in the second act, that we get a wonderfully genre-busting moment between working-class characters Stillman (Wali Jamal) and Hollander (Dave Mansueto), probing the limits of masculinity in a mutual fantasy of homosocial desire, as well as some forceful and highly satisfying pushback against the white male order of things by the play’s minority and female characters, Albert Chang (Donald Chang), Carranza (Micky Miller), and Hannah Leary (Nancy McNulty).
After two hours codifying, cataloguing, and satirizing the structures of male power, playwright Pollono gives a woman the last word. I’ll read that as a concession that the future is female – or at least, that it’s long past time to change both the rulers and the rules. Until then, we can all look to barebones to continue to pry back the curtains on toxic masculinity and help us understand what we’re fighting against.