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When Is It Polite to Discuss a Murder? "The Bad Guys" finds dark humor in being manly

By MARK BLANKENSHIP

The Bad Guys might seem like a realistic play, telling the story of good old friends at a backyard barbecue. But underneath the small talk and the on-stage grill, there's a carefully crafted dramatic structure pushing the characters toward an inescapable fate. Like ancient Greek heroes in a modern-day setting, these dudes might not realize that destiny and playwriting are shoving them along, but we do. And that's half the fun of watching.

Now playing in Second Stage's Uptown series at the McGinn/Cazale, The Bad Guys follows a filmmaker named Noah whose movie is about a high school friend who may have committed a murder. We find Noah in his mother's backyard, getting ready to leave for a film festival, but every time he tries to go, something stops him---a friend's arrival, a last-minute argument, a missing set of car keys. His frustration is funny and tense.

And Noah's not the only one who's trapped. His stepbrother Fink is a prisoner of propriety, fighting to make sure everyone says polite things about the past. He won't let anyone say "murder," for instance, and when other friends arrive---including a soldier and the town drug dealer---he tries to make them be cordial.

For playwright Alena Smith, all this pressure---both internal and social---shapes the play's identity. "It feels like a very, very dark comedy of manners," she says. "It's about what you can say and what you can't say." And indeed, you can almost see the play's impish smile as it puts characters in awkward situations.

But the comedy prods something deeper---the question of how men are "allowed" to behave. While the friends dance around what they don't want to say, they also recall their favorite childhood memories. They clearly yearn for that closeness now, but the story of the murder and the pressure to be "manly" makes it almost impossible.

"They keep getting pushed out of these rituals," Smith says. "It's almost like they've been exiled to this backyard."

For director Hal Brooks, the challenge is making these ideas come across on stage. Some solutions have been accidental. For instance, James McMenamin, who plays Noah, wanted something to do in the opening scene, when he's waiting for a ride to the airport. Brooks was walking down a hallway at Second Stage and happened to see a lacrosse stick, so on a whim, he told McMenamin to toss an apple around with it. The moment became surprisingly poignant. "There's something oddly caged and repetitive about it," says Brooks. "And it does seem to ground him. It's like something a kid would do."

In other words, the play opens with an immediate suggestion that Noah is trapped in his youth.

On a larger scale, Brooks worked with the actors to understand why these men are so invested in the old days. "One of the things I was trying to connect them to was that when you're growing up, you have really strong feelings for your buddies," he says. "And if you're not gay, you have to reconcile that. What does it mean to want to be like your best friend in fifth grade? It's exploring those tender and innocent early feelings that you feel, when the gender is irrelevant, and figuring out what to do with them now."

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Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Joan Marcus