BY DAVID KENNERLEY | In “The Drawer Boy,” an ominous drama about two bachelor farmers whose world is upended by a pesky young visitor, playwright Michael Healey is not content with simply telling a good story. He’s fascinated with the nature of storytelling and the blurred lines between fantasy, reality, memory and madness. And the oddly healing power of deception.
Healey has even borrowed from the likes of Steinbeck and Shakespeare to enrich the narrative.
As directed by Alexander Dinelaris, also a playwright (“Red Dog Howls,” “The Bodyguard”), we share that fascination, yet also the frustration of a life fraught with contradiction that’s constantly shifting beneath our feet.
A pair of hermit farmers rely on a shared history that may or may not be true
The plot of “The Drawer Boy” is infinitely more complex than it first appears. Set in 1972 in rural Ontario, Morgan and Angus, boyhood pals who served shoulder-to-shoulder in World War II, have been running a farm on their own for decades. Morgan is a caretaker of sorts for Angus, who was injured by a shell blast that damaged his capacity for short-term memory and now comes off as “slow.”
In many ways, they recall the codependent duo in “Of Mice and Men.”
Enter Miles, an ambitious actor from the city who moves in for a spell to help with chores and gather material for a play he’s workshopping. But when he swipes a private story that Morgan nightly tells Angus to calm his anxieties, tensions flare and the farmers’ delicate balance is tested.
The story, which may not be completely true, involves sweethearts the men had met in England who follow them back to Ontario to get married. Then tragedy strikes. Indeed, much of the play’s power is drawn from the confused, supercharged gap between fact and fantasy. Are these guys bachelors or widowers?
Even the play’s title is not what it initially seems. It’s pronounced “draw-er,” i.e., a boy who draws. Apparently Angus, an aspiring architect, once drew a dream house — a pair of houses joined together, actually — one for him and one for Morgan.
Now, if this bachelor-farmer scenario is setting off any gaydar alerts, I should clarify that this is not a gay play — not in the usual sense, anyway. Absent any hint of a sexual relationship, the tender, tumultuous bond the two men share feels as real as any married hetero couple. Surely the sandwiches that Angus serves his partner are made with love. Morgan’s stories are delivered with affection as well.
“The Drawer Boy” cleverly takes a cue from “Hamlet,” where madness and sanity collide. Miles tells a story where he casts himself as the conniving Prince and at one point Angus feigns insanity. Down on this farm, as in Elsinore, the play’s the thing.
The cast does its best with remarkably challenging roles. Brad Fryman plays Morgan with mix of irritability and kindness, deftly conveying the heavy responsibility of running the farm and safeguarding his dear friend.
Alex Fast makes for a convincing Miles, the impetuous interloper with a repentant side, though the ill-fitting tie-dyed shirts and cutoff shorts do him no favors.
William Laney has the toughest task, portraying Angus with emotions that ricochet from harmless dolt to petulant child to brainiac accountant (he has a “Rain Man”-like talent for calculating figures). The actor handles these shifts well.
Hailed as “a new classic” and landing on Time magazine’s “Top Ten Plays” list in 2001, the award-winning piece has been produced often since it premiered in Toronto in 1999. The Oberon Theatre Ensemble should be commended for introducing this neglected tale to the New York stage. Yet for all its promise, the drama fails to resonate as forcefully as it should.
As any savvy raconteur knows, however, that good stories often get better with each retelling. Given that I saw the second performance, which was rocky and tentative, no doubt “The Drawer Boy” will grow stronger throughout its run.
THE DRAWER BOY | Oberon Theatre Ensemble June Havoc Theatre at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex | 312 W. 36th St. | Through Mar. 23 | Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $25; $15 for students & seniors at oberontheatre.org or 866-811-4111