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‘Boy’: Nature Versus Nurture

March 11th, 2016

by Samuel L. Leiter

Heidi Armbruster, Ted Koch, and Paul Niebanck in 'Boy' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Heidi Armbruster, Ted Koch, and Paul Niebanck in ‘Boy’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

The zeitgeist’s obsessive fascination with issues of sexual confusion and gender identity continues with Anna Ziegler’s Boy, an engrossing yet inconsistently satisfying new drama being offered by the Keen Company under Linsay Firman’s direction on Theatre Row. In it, New York stage stalwart Bobby Steggert plays Adam Turner, a character whose story was inspired by a famous case of sexual reassignment surgery performed in 1966 on an eight-month-old Canadian boy, David Reimer.

Reimer—the late subject of the “John/Joan” case—was the victim of a botched circumcision that led to the loss of his penis; his agitated parents sought the help of a noted psychologist, John Money, who advised them to have the boy’s testicles removed and raise him as a girl. Despite the efforts to nurture him as a female, David, after learning of his biological gender, rejected his imposed identity at fourteen and had genital reconstructive surgery; eventually, he even went public in an effort to help dissuade others from following the same path.

Rebecca Rittenhouse and Bobby Steggert in 'Boy.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Rebecca Rittenhouse and Bobby Steggert in ‘Boy.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Boy hews fairly closely to Reimer’s situation, including his having been a twin; it imagines not only what it might have been like for him to grow up as a girl (hormone shots included) with a boy inside struggling to get out, but what such an individual might experience if he found himself in a romantic relationship with a woman. The play actually begins with the beginning of that relationship when, wearing a mask (presumably symbolizing his need to disguise his sexuality), Reimer’s avatar, Adam, meets Jenny Lafferty (Rebecca Rittenhouse) at a Halloween party in 1989, a date projected on the rear wall. Each scene, in fact, is introduced with a projection of the year in which it’s set, as well as Adam’s age, since the action jumps around in time, from 1968 to 1990.

Ziegler’s primary focus is on the classic nurture/nature debate—a lengthy program note provides helpful background—so we’re forced to ponder just how much of human behavior is based on how we’re raised as opposed to our genetic predispositions. When Adam’s parents, the warm but anxious Trudy (Heidi Armbruster) and the gruffly macho, working-class Doug (Ted Köch), of Davenport, Iowa, agree to the recommendation of celebrity psychologist Dr. Wendell Barnes (Paul Niebanck) that Samuel be raised as a girl, he’s renamed Samantha. Important scenes show the bookish, sensitive, and highly intelligent Samantha in her childhood sessions with Dr. Barnes in Boston.

A principal question concerns whether Barnes is more interested in Adam (who chooses that name when he decides to live as a man) as a person or as a case study he can use to benefit his career. The other main question is how Adam will resolve his love affair with Jenny, the single mother he falls in love with and who can’t understand what his sexual hesitancy is all about: “Well, are you gay, then?” she asks.

Despite its theatrical devices of moving back and forth through time and having Adam morph from one age or gender orientation to the other, without costume changes or radical behavioral alterations, the narrative and its issues—particularly the nature versus nurture argument—are clearly laid out. But just what’s going on sexually with Adam when he yearns for Jenny remains indefinite; he says “I have a dick that doesn’t really work. Not really.” You have to wonder what that means, and what he’s feeling or is sexually capable of when he kisses her, especially with his condition having been such an obstacle. More details, please!

Boy moves along efficiently on Sandra Goldmark’s simple setting of black backdrop fronted by two freestanding doorframes. Steggert, 35, is suitably boyish-looking and versatile for a role demanding so many shifts in age and tone, but Adam remains more a textbook case than a three-dimensional person. Armbruster and Köch are acceptable as his conventionally distressed parents while Niebanck’s psychologist is stiffly artificial in both writing and performance. Only Rittenhouse, as the confused girlfriend, approaches a fully realized performance.

At 90 minutes, Boy isn’t concerned with Adam and Jenny’s future. You may wish to Google “David Reimer” to find out what happened to Adam’s source, and to wonder whether the note of promise on which the play ends might be not only misleading but disingenuous.

Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through April 9

Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (

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