Anyone who's been around teen-age boys struggling to grow up won't fail to recognize the opening scene of Howard Korder's "Boys' Life" at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. There's the messy room, the walls covered in teen-age icons, the beer, the junk food, the pot. And, of course, the idle, restless, rowdy, sex-obsessed adolescents: Jack (Jon Cryer), Phil (Greg Kean) and Don (Charlie Stratton).
It's the truest moment in the play. Or it would be if these guys were indeed adolescents. We're never told their age, but that first impression is that they're in high school. Perhaps Korder meant the opening as a flashback. It's not clear. Neither is what follows. Vague though things continue to be, we do eventually gather that these "boys" are at least in their mid-20s.
That realization does strange things to "Boys' Life." From the title, one assumed (and the first scene indicated) that it was about \o7 boys'\f7 life. Discovering that these are men, one of them married with a child, alters the perspective. OK, so Korder is writing about boys \o7 becoming\f7 men, reluctantly, in suburban 1980s America. But whether about men or boys or both, what we get is a collection of scenes in search of coherence.
The impression is that Korder got stuck, unable to paint his way out of a maze of rambling, episodic scenes that track these three pals through their encounters with women and one another.
Phil accidentally runs into Karen (Kate Stern) at a party. She's so neurotic (watch how she pulls that tight mini-dress over her knees) you get the feeling she'll go off like a buzzer if he so much as shakes her hand. They recently had a night together, and Phil, who hadn't given it another thought, is now making any nonsensical promise just to get her back in the sack. "This could turn out to be something really wonderful," he exults. "It would be over before you'd know it!"
Jack, we discover, is the married one with a child. The when, where, how and why of it are never revealed. As he sits in the park watching his little son play, we also discover--casually--that it's Mama who brings in the bacon while Jack idles and burns. Jack's an enigma: a craven slob who never shaves, talks to his son, Jason, with the mouth of a marine drill sergeant (though note that his ultimate threat is "I'll tell your mother on you") and maintains a roving eye. In the park, Jack meets Maggie (Kari Lizer), a jogger to whom he lies with impunity as he makes a few cynical passes. A fascinating fellow, Jack, especially as performed by Cryer.
Don, meanwhile, meets Liza (Jennifer Tilly), an aggressive waitress who sculpts and whom he successfully beds. Why he then turns around and cheats on her with a certified crazy (Maria Tirabassi), who tells fortunes in studiously adopted foreign accents, is anyone's guess. Spinelessness is a good bet. Liza is so furious when she finds out, and Don so humbled, that it leads to instant wedlock. The emphasis, of course, is on lock.
So it's diorama time: See Phil plead. See Jack rail. See Don squirm. After Korder has given us an overdose of each, he attempts to bring it together in a final scene that redefines these attitudes without shedding any new light on them. This is sexual perversity in the '80s with boring, self-indulgent guys. The moment of reconciliation between Jack and his mythical wife (Roxanna Augesen, whom we don't even meet until the last five seconds of the play) is a cheat.
To the degree that Korder wanted to show how relationships in the 1980s exist at an alarming rate of dysfunction, he succeeded. But within a strident and alarmingly dysfunctional play. The blanks here hardly speak to us at all. We have so little sense, let alone knowledge, of who these three boys/men are, that it's hard to connect the dots. And with the exception of Maggie, we're even less enlightened about the array of lackluster women they meet. When, after a particularly long-winded harangue, Jack tells his friend, "You know, Phil, in China they don't have time to worry about that," Korder has accurately second-guessed his audience's state of mind.
Director David Beaird and designers Dean Tschetter (the unappealing brown on brown set) and Douglas D. Smith (the gloomy lights) help to keep things plunged in a sort of perpetual murk. What room there is in which to negotiate is poorly managed by Beaird. Except for Cryer, who can be compelling and utterly maddening at once, even the capable performers seem stumped.
\o7 At 514 S. Spring St., Tuesdays through Sundays, 8 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2, through Aug. 27. Tickets: $22-$25; (213) 627-5599.