Boy,’ oh boy

Four boys walk into an Iowa cornfield?

It’s not the set-up for a bad joke, it’s the mysterious set of essential circumstances underlying Julia Jordan’s affecting “Boy,” currently being performed in its regional debut by the Salt Lake Acting Company until Feb. 26.

“Boy” is a Rubik’s cube of a play: a labyrinthine amalgam of lies, conflations, secrets, fictions, half-truths and unspoken miseries centered on a quietly devastated Midwest family and the mysterious Boy who suddenly materializes in their lives with his own shadowy past.

As he infiltrates-separately-the lives of all of Jordan’s characters, Boy’s defensive evasion looks to possess the key to unlocking not only the history of a child old beyond his years, but also the grief of an entire family of shattered individuals.

The play opens on a bitter-cold Minnesota night in the bedroom of Sara, a medical student and the ex-girlfriend of one of “Boy’s” central characters, the prodigal Mick.

Mick is a smart kid-well, a smart 30-something who acts like a kid-who abruptly disappeared three years ago, without explanation or recourse. Abandoning his literary gift-“I’m not much of a writer, but I’m an excellent reader”-and his life in Minnesota for an escapist acting career in New York, Mick has been an absentee phantom in Sara’s life, as well as his own, for some time.

But now Mick is home. Not only that, Mick is outside Sara’s bedroom window, begging entry, with his cheek scratched (“A tree branch,” he explains distractedly) and his sense of self in obvious disarray.

Despite her better judgments, Sara lets Mick back into her bedroom and her life.

Mick is all over the map, offering no explanation for his disappearance (which is hinted to have taken place under tense and dire circumstances involving a number of senses of the term “abortion”) but launching straightaway into a seemingly arbitrary rant about the unfairness of novelist George Eliot’s ending to Mill on the Floss.

Mick is upset that Eliot wrote 700 pages of elegiac prose, constructing a universe for her novel and lives for her characters, only to have the whole town die unexpectedly in a flash flood.

He’s disgusted at the lack of resolution, the way the narrative drops off the face of the planet, much as he did three years ago. Sara, in the meantime, is growing disgusted with Mick’s evasive maneuvering, and- failing to see the point to his plot-oriented diatribe-attempts to kick him out of her bedroom.

Only problem is, Mick’s parents are “having?a?thing,” and he can’t go home because he “doesn’t belong there.”

The play then immediately cuts to another fractured scene, in a different point in time (maybe before, maybe after the bedroom scene-we don’t know until the end of “Boy”), populated by different characters.

In a claustrophobic psychiatrist’s office sit two characters: Terry, who we learn later to be Mick’s father, and a mysterious, nameless Boy from Iowa. The audience is interjected midway through an ominous and fragmented conversation, with Terry trying doggedly to extract some “truth” about the boy’s past.

All we get are visceral glimpses at reality-an Iowa cornfield, four friends, four shotguns, an unspeakable catastrophe from which only Boy escapes alive-surrounded by Boy’s elaborate, fictionalized account of his life. After a minute-as Boy plays with his doctor, deftly reflecting his questions back to their source-it becomes clear that Terry is just as troubled as Boy and disturbingly without any kind of catastrophe to explain his state of misery. When Boy likens his despair to “not being high in Iowa in the summer,” Terry devastatingly knows exactly what he means.

Again, “Boy” shifts temporal and narrative gears, jumbling the audience’s perception of linear plot by turning the spotlight to another disjunctive scene. This time, Boy is sitting with his community college English teacher, Maureen-Mick’s mom and Terry’s wife-discussing (eerily) Boy’s own outrage at Eliot’s flood ending in “Mill on the Floss.”

Boy’s fury is directed similarly to Mick’s: Tellingly, he can’t believe that life, plot and happiness can just be allowed to wash away in the kind of disaster for which we cannot manage any preparations.

However, Maureen is far more interested in the reasons why Boy, despite being incensed at the novelist’s irresponsibility, tacked on a similarly unbelievable ending to a short story he fashioned for Maureen’s class. Though there is no flood in his tale, Boy’s story ends with the projected, sudden escape: “And then the boy got really, really high and lived happily ever after. The end.”

Maureen is frustrated by the Boy who so reminds her of her own wayward son, Mick, and whose truncated life harkens her own interrupted marriage to Terry and seems determined to undermine his own story by abandoning his narrative before its realized. For his part, Boy only cryptically offers, “You don’t see any more words, do ya? Little tip: That’s how you know it’s finished.”

Finally, “Boy” cuts to Mick waiting by a river for an older Vietnam vet he met online (selling marijuana vaporizers of his own creation). When Boy shows up instead, a final piece of the fractal puzzle is laid out for the audience to assemble.

Ultimately, “Boy” is an exercise in the exploration of narrative-the story of our lives, the stories we create to repress our memories, the unforeseeable floods that wash our stories away and the opportunities for redemption offered to those who somehow manage to buoy after the terrible waters subside.

All the characters in “Boy” function as mirrors and projections for others-through each other’s success (or failure) in confronting the mechanisms of his own narrative unraveling, everyone in “Boy” either discovers or loses sight of their own respective salvation.

At its most harrowing level, “Boy” confronts the dizzying nature of plot itself-calling into question the legitimacy of our own ghosts and haunted identities in a world where life exists as an ephemeral, disjunctive, decontextualized series of separate scenes.

With acting that’s competent but not brilliant-other than Boy himself, played superbly by David Fetzer-and modest set design and direction, SLAC does precisely what it ought to do when enacting a play as tense and mannered as “Boy”: It sits back and lets the incredible story unravel itself.

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