In Dialogue

Sex, Lies, and Videotape à la Aguirre-Sacasa

Tim Rock and Stephen Louis Grush in the Steppenwolf Theatre production of Good Boys and True by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, directed by Pam MacKinnon. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Creatures from the deep, body-snatching aliens, or other supernatural forces are usually what torment the families in Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s plays. But in his latest Good Boys and True, set at an all-boys prep school outside Washington D.C., what’s haunting the Hardy clan is a shockingly graphic sex tape (VHS, this is 1988) that begins circulating around the pastoral 102-acre campus. Brandon Hardy looks a lot like the boy on the tape—but so does the rest of the football team, his mother Elizabeth argues, as she struggles to clear her son’s name even as she herself becomes part of a darker, larger picture.

Good Boys and True, which premiered this winter at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, begins performances at New York’s Second Stage Theatre on April 23. I caught up with Roberto—one of my favorite playwrights, on and off the page, since we were grad school classmates—when he was in town during a long weekend off from the HBO series Big Love, where he is a staff writer.

Rail: What was the inspiration for the story in Good Boys and True?

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa: I had gone to an all-boys prep school similar to the fictitious St. Joseph’s in Good Boys, and I always knew that I was going to set a story in that world. And over the years, any time I would come across an article in the paper or a magazine about a prep school—frequently they were about sex scandals—I would rip it out and keep it in a folder.

At first there were a couple of false starts on it, where I was really focusing on the boys, trying to tell a Dead Poet’s Society or School Ties kind of story about the proud tradition of the prep school society. But every time, my excitement for it as I wrote kind of dwindled. And then I thought: What if I put a character who doesn’t really know this world at the center of the story—say a student’s mother? And then the play came pretty quickly, once I kind of landed on the character of Elizabeth.

Rail: What was your experience in prep school, as an artist or a non-football player, in that world?

Aguirre-Sacasa: Well the irony is: I DID play football. And I definitely knew I was gay, and there was definitely no talking about that. There were no “out” students; there were kids who seemed effeminate (I guess I was maybe one of them), and there was definitely some teasing, but I was living a straight life, playing football—and then doing plays. So I didn’t feel like that much of an outsider, except that I knew that I was fundamentally different from most of my classmates.

More than anything, I felt like I was taking notes the entire time that I was there, hearing the way that my other classmates talked, what their concerns were. I remember I was doing this musical, and one of my friends who was also in it was like: Oh, well I just did this to meet girls. And I remember thinking that was so stupid, and going to some of my other friends, being like: Oh my god, can you believe Mark is doing this just to meet girls? And they were like: Why are YOU doing this?

It was a very, very sexualized environment. In the play, the mother says to the coach: I heard a story about a kid who took his girlfriend into the showers to celebrate a win, and that’s the one thing that did happen when I was at school. I remember there being a reference to so-and-so “scoring in the showers,” and I had no idea what that meant, until one of my friends explained to me afterwards.

From Good Boys and True, a scene between Elizabeth Hardy and Coach Shea:

SHEA: …There’s talk and there’s truth, Lizzy. And the two don’t always necessarily overlap.

ELIZABETH: Of course, but Maddy—my sister—says (and I remember from when we were in high school) that St. Joe’s…has a history? A…reputation?

SHEA: I see where you’re going with this, Liz—

ELIZABETH: Maddy says—as a for instance—that the St. Joe’s boys rate the girls at the Girls School, one to ten.

SHEA: Sure, I’m sure they do, but—well, didn’t you do the same? In your diary, back in high school, which boys were the most handsome?

ELIZABETH: They rate them on their ability and willingness to perform oral sex, Russ. Which I certainly did not keep track of in my diary. (I didn’t even have a diary, by the way.)

SHEA: All right—

ELIZABETH: They have contests, Russ—do you know about this? They tell each other which girls will—are willing to service them; they try to see who can collect the most blowjobs.

SHEA: None of which—I’m sorry, but none of that has anything to do with your son.

ELIZABETH: For me it does.

Rail: It’s definitely a more “adult” portrait of teenagers than many of the recent plays set in the world of high school.

Aguirre-Sacasa: The play has changed a lot in my process of working on it, and I think that it’s gotten darker, but kind of more truthful, in terms of the hateful things that the boys—both onstage and off—say and how they react. And the adults are as important, if not more important, than the kids in this story. It’s definitely not an idealized world view.

In working on the play, though, it was really important to me that it wasn’t a complete indictment of the private school system. Because in fact I had a fine time in high school, and got a great education. I think with a lot of people there’s a desire to demonize the private school world. I understand that, but ultimately the play feels like it really is more about personal culpability and responsibility. Part of what the mother tries to figure out in the play is: If her son did this, WHY he did it—and who can she blame, other than her son? And the prime candidate is the school itself, for breeding this kind of mentality. But I don’t want it to be quite that easy.

Rail: When I first read the play, I thought it feels very late ’80s: sex, power, money. And then a few days later, the scandal with Governor Spitzer broke.

Aguirre-Sacasa: The first draft of the play was actually set in 2006, the year I wrote it. And then the Duke Lacrosse scandal happened, and even though I had written my play beforehand, it was like “ripped from the headlines” (even though that has different issues). And I feel like EVERYONE has a sex tape now, and with YouTube—it’s a different world. Also the culture has changed—although I’m not sure that’s true in the prep school world—I guess I want to believe that ideas of homosexuality have changed since then. And, ultimately, I was writing a play about my high school experience, so I felt, why not set the play then?

Rail: I love the sense of storytelling in your work, and in this play especially, the way that we get to know the characters, and the truth about what happened, unfolds in a really smart and sophisticated way.

Aguirre-Sacasa: The play is a bit of a mystery. It starts out as a “who-done-it,” and at a certain point becomes a “why-done-it.” You want to tease it out. But even though I was disseminating information piecemeal, the characters had to be psychologically sound and emotionally truthful, or else we’d lose the audience or the story would fall apart. So that was a huge challenge.

The other thing that I found really hard was making sure that I didn’t judge any of the characters before they were meant to be judged. On some level, this is a play about a bourgeois, affluent family in Washington, DC. I think the knee-jerk reaction is to demonize them, to point the finger at them. But I hate when I go to see plays and I feel like the playwright sets up the family just to knock them down, or does my work for me by condemning them. I don’t want to condemn any of these characters.

Rail: This is one of your most political plays as well. Is that something that you thought about going into it?

Aguirre-Sacasa: When you set a play in D.C., it’s hard to keep it from having that sheen; and the late ’80s, those were dark times in Washington. I never set out with an agenda, I think: Here’s the story, how can I best tell that? Usually my plays do have different concerns—they’re more personal, or they’re really like good yarns—but as I was writing, I realized that this one is saying something bigger about society. The sister character has been a huge challenge to write so that she doesn’t become a mouthpiece. She’s better now, she has more personal stakes, but at first she was very much a finger-wagging character.

Rail: While your “supernatural trademarks” are not here, there are the mother-son and mother-sister relationships you’ve explored with earlier works. You write such great roles for these women.

Aguirre-Sacasa: I feel like when playwrights start to talk about themes they return to, my eyes glaze over—but it is true, I find myself always going back to a family theme. I don’t know what that’s about. I think my parents find it very worrisome. A lot of my plays have nuclear families, and something horrible or dramatic or comedic happens to them, and I see how that plays out. Now that I’m in my thirties, I want to see how that would unfold within a family of friends. I will say though, that like any gay man worth his salt, I do love a fierce role for a woman.

Good Boys and True, which premiered this winter at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, will run at New York’s Second Stage Theatre from April 23-June 1, directed by Scott Ellis. Tickets: www.2st.com or 212-246-4422.

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s recent New York productions include Based on a Totally True Story (Manhattan Theatre Club) and Dark Matters (Rattlestick Theatre).

IN DIALOGUE is a column written by playwrights about playwrights, with a focus on showcasing new texts. If you are a playwright and would like to write a column, please contact Emily DeVoti at editorial@brooklynrail.org.

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Kathryn Walat

KATHRYN WALAT is a playwright who currently splits her time between New York and Savannah. She's working on a commission for MCC Theater, called See Bat Fly.