Mere days after the abomination of the Supreme Court overturning Roe vs. Wade, discussing a play about toxic masculinity seems almost too topical. Cisgender white men are running amok waging wars, attempting coups and reversing civil rights, so what better time to examine the root of all this madness? Except that none of this is new. There has never been a time where men acting badly wasn’t the prime source of evil in the world. This subject has been explored in countless books, films and plays. Unfortunately Tim Venable’s The Beautiful People has little original insight to offer, although the world premiere production by Rogue Machine is otherwise first-rate.
Two teenage boys are having a sleepover in a basement bedroom, although very little sleep is occurring. It’s the ‘90s, and the boys occupy themselves accordingly – playing Quake, watching MTV and microwaving pizza rolls. 1 (Alex Neher), whose home it is, is the alpha male, and he gleefully bullies and mocks 2 (Justin Preston) as the long night proceeds. Just what bonds these two is somewhat mysterious, other than a vague outsider status, but by dawn their motives become clear.
Neher excels as 1, the bully who thinks of himself as special, perfectly capturing the mindset of a gleeful thug that claims to have standards (re: masturbation – “But I do it alone, like a gentleman”). He stalks the stage like a confident predator, threatening and often delivering violence to his “friend.” Preston is equally good as 2, long-suffering and subservient to 1’s whims, yet finally more frightening than 1 when he occasionally snaps and reveals true madness within.
Director Guillermo Cienfuegos gets strong performances from his actors and effectively stages the show in the round, in which the audience is seated all over the basement set (detailed production design credited to David Mauer). There’s one terrific moment in which the actors tell a couple of audience members to leave their seats that nicely obliterates the fourth wall. Christopher Moscatiello’s sound design is marvelous, convincing us that we’re actually in a basement room, with footsteps and noises all creating an effective illusion.
The big reveal at the end of Venable’s play is that the two teens are getting ready to go commit a school shooting, but sadly this is no surprise at all. It was obvious to me from the press materials and plot that this outcome was where the story was heading. There’s nothing wrong with this choice of subject matter, but by unveiling what’s going on only in the last few minutes of the show it fails to adequately engage with it. Instead of distinctive characters, we’re presented with what feels like a Very Special Episode of Beavis and Butthead and a checklist of toxic masculine behavior in teens: homophobia/repressed homosexual urges, possible parental abuse, aping violent media images and anger from social rejection. None of this is wrong, but none of these are fresh insights, either – this play could’ve been written in the 90s. It seems like after decades of this scourge of mass shootings that there might be something new to say or learn.
This topic is no longer shocking or controversial – this kind of tragedy happens almost every day now. Perhaps a play about why that is and why this country seems to accept it as inevitable would be a worthy thing to attempt.
The Beautiful People is presented by Rogue Machine at the Matrix Theatre and plays through July 31, 2022. Tickets are available at Rogue Machine Theatre
This production contains adult content and is for mature audiences only. It contains nudity, physical violence and gunplay.
PLEASE NOTE: This is an in-person event at their NEW home at the Matrix Theatre (7657 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90046)