If you’re a regular theatergoer, you’ve seen your share of graphic violence. Consider Sarah Kane’s Blasted, where rape is probably the least disturbing thing on stage; the boiling-oil scene in Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane; virtually any production of Shakespeare’s tongue-severing, cannibalistic Titus Andronicus. In a current Off-Broadway play that shall remain nameless (no spoilers!), a baby is beaten to death in a trash bag.
You’ll see no such atrocities in Girls & Boys, Dennis Kelly’s one-woman drama performed by a stellar Carey Mulligan at the Minetta Lane Theatre. You’ll just hear about them—and somehow, that’s even worse.
“The knife was a Kandar GX208 hunting knife,” Mulligan’s character begins. “They’re incredibly sharp when first bought.” She goes on to describe two murders in excruciating detail. “The blood would have been shocking.… It would have been like taking a large wooden salad bowl full of blood and pouring it out onto the bed.” Just let that sit for a moment. A large wooden salad bowl full of blood. Relaying the specifics a stabbing, she points slowly, almost clinically, to seven spots on her body—places where one victim was stabbed repeatedly. “They are incredibly sharp, those knives.”
For some reason, simply hearing her talk about these acts is more upsetting than watching multiple murders in Medea. We’ve been listening to her honest, self-effacing banter for well over an hour now, so we’ve grown quite attached to Mulligan’s character, despite the fact that Kelly didn’t even give her a real name (she’s called Woman). Something that affects her so profoundly is bound to get to us as well.
We bond with her instantly, as she tells tales of her travels (“Paris is a dump. I’m sorry, it is, and it’s time we all started talking about this.”) and her “drinky, druggy, slaggy” days: “Not slutty, it was not some kind of Sex and the City shag fest that you could gossip with gay pals about, it was dirty, messy and slaggy.” She recounts meeting her furniture-importer husband in the Naples airport, where she was impressed by his epic takedown of a pair of line-hopping models in an easyJet queue. She recalls how she blagged her way into a job in documentary films as “a development executive’s assistant’s executive assistant.” She chides and entertains her young children, playing games of architect (daughter Leanne’s choice) and war (son Danny’s choice) in their living room, rendered almost entirely in a cool cyan hue by designer Es Devlin. (Side note: From TFANA’s Julie Taymor–directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the American Psycho musical, no set designer does so much with so many shades of blue than Devlin.)
She’s a fascinating unnamed woman to spend 90 minutes with; Kelly, a 2013 Tony winner for his Matilda the Musical libretto, packs her monologues with an impressive amount of detail and a wonderfully ever-so-pessimistic perspective: A smile “could cut heads off statues”; a carpet is “suicide-beige.” Then there’s the idea—relayed as the plot of a documentary—that “society has been created for men; to enable men, to empower men, for men to run and for men to tend. And yet any objective look at our world would have to conclude that men are, in general, absolutely cocking awful at being in power: in general.” Mulligan—who performed Girls & Boys at London’s Royal Court Theatre earlier this year—is, from start to finish, completely captivating. A bit of unique good news: The show has been recorded by Audible (the audiobook producer also preserved last season’s Harry Clarke starring Billy Crudup); so those who can’t travel to see Mulligan’s magnificent performance can at least hear it.
Girls & Boys opened June 27, 2018, and runs through July 22. Tickets and information: girlsandboystheplay.com