Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is known by the masses as the creator of the CW’s Riverdale and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. He’s also worked on numerous TV shows like Glee, Looking, Big Love and Supergirl. Although he does TV fare and soapy hyper-realistic teen angst well, Aguirre-Sacasa’s storytelling abilities on the stage are something that fans should not overlook.
In his play Good Boys, which is currently at the Pasadena Playhouse through July 21, Aguirre-Sacasa puts toxic masculinity and homophobia on blast while unapologetically unpacking white privilege in a way that not only ignites rage but also makes everyone examine their own entitlement and what we are doing with it.
Good Boys originally premiered in 2008 in Chicago and was a Steppenwolf Theatre Company presentation. It was originally titled Good Boys and True and was commissioned by the Manhattan Theatre Club. Eleven years later it takes the Pasadena Playhouse stage with Betsy Brandt (Life in Pieces, Breaking Bad) starring and Carolyn Cantor directing — and in this “locker room talk,” Brett Kavanaugh-ian era when the definition of masculinity is being highly scrutinized, the play is more timely than ever.
Set in 1988 in the forest green halls of St. Joseph’s Preparatory School for Boys where pristine wood-grain molding lines the ceiling and leather club chairs are in every room, Good Boys follows Elizabeth Hardy (Brandt) and her son Brandon (Ben Ahlers), a golden boy at St. Joseph with a kind face and an infectiously positive outlook on life. When a VHS tape of an unknown young man doing violent sex acts to a young woman surfaces, the school is thrown for a loop. When students and faculty start to point fingers as to who the obscured face of the young man is in the video, people are looking at Brandon. As a result, the relationship between the mother and son goes on a downward spiral as Elizabeth slowly unravels the truth.
Good Boys definitely gives off major vibes of School Ties and Dead Poets Society — not only with its striped tie-and-blazer prep school aesthetic but also the wild privilege and masculinity of it all told through the point of view from Elizabeth and Brandon. Even so, it’s Brandt’s Elizabeth that is the crux of the whole story as she tries to distinguish fiction from fact, but when she discovers that it is, in fact, Brandon in the video she is put in a very Good Wife position. Should she fight to save her son with the privileged resources she has so that the family could move on or should she hold her son responsible and teach him a moral lesson and risk losing her comfortable life?
Brandt holds the play on her shoulders well like a confident, yet struggling Atlas. From the get-go, Brandt drives the play forward with frustration, disappointment, sadness, anger and ultimately, relief as fuel. She perseveres and charges each scene, without pulling any punches, leaving you emotionally drained, yet galvanized — and not once does she play the victim. Instead, she invites you in on this empathetic journey and forces you to feel every gut punch of truth and in all honesty, that is difficult when it is a character who is a white privileged woman. And that white privilege is put in check with the character of Tamilla (Toks Olagundoye) who is there to constantly remind her of her entitlement without being an element of token casting.
The entire ensemble is incredible, with a trifecta of three actors that make up the core of this play. Ahlers as Brandon, is pitch-perfect, giving us the charm of a boy who you can’t help but trust and the confused product of a young man brought up in an all-boy school of toxic behavior and a disconnected father — who is never shown in the play. As consequences unravel for Brandon, Ahlers’ performance almost becomes unhinged, but he reels it in just enough with the little control his character has left.
Arnold gives a resounding performance as Brandon’s best friend Justin, who represents something that Brandon, Elizabeth, and the school refuse to recognize — and that adds another layer of toxic masculinity. As his gay friend, he is a touchstone of truth for Brandon because we later find out that he is harboring homosexual feelings — specifically for Justin. The more the issue gets buried, the more volatile their relationship becomes. And at one point, Elizabeth, in an effort to find answers for Brandon’s behavior, questions his relationship with Justin, but he explodes in a rage, therefore expressing his self-hatred and the homophobia surrounding him at the school, which is arguably why he made the sex tape to begin with.
Good Boys could easily be a chance for one to stand on a soapbox and tell you, “This is how you should think!” Rather, Good Boys leverages drama into advocacy with an even hand, putting facts on the table and holding a mirror to harsh truths that many people in positions of privilege fail to recognize. Good Boys gives a reminder that the once normal culture of “boys will be boys” masculinity, unchecked affluent white privilege and homophobia was never normal in the first place.