“This was not the plan,” confesses Ryan F. Casey, writer and performer of “What Happens To Boys In Chelsea,” a bold and powerful selection at this year’s United Solo Theatre Festival. Casey plays Foster Lawrence, who, at the age of eighteen and on the verge of coming out as gay, fell from the five-story window of a Chelsea apartment building. Now, ten years later and with no memory of the traumatic incident, Foster reexamines his past to find some sense of why and how his life was thrown into chaos.
It’s a clever and engaging premise and one that sees Casey alternating between raconteur and tragedian as he dissects the life of his subject. This is the story of “the boy who fell from the sky,” but the grisly accident that maimed Foster and placed him in a nursing home is hardly the end of his story. Instead, Foster uses his injury as a vehicle to recount the love, lust, pain, and sorrow that characterized his life since his accident. “What Happens To Boys In Chelsea” functions as a series of interconnected stream-of-consciousness stories of self-discovery. And while the through-line can feel obfuscated at times, that mental fuzziness is essential to the dreamlike memories the piece conjures.
As personal and touching as Foster’s stories are, they also serve as poignant cultural and social commentary on the LGBTQ community, the AIDS crisis of the 80s and 90s, privilege and sexuality. Even when relaying the intimate struggles of his private life, Foster keeps his story from seeming self-indulgent or insular by grounding his triumphs and failures in the here and now. Frank discussions of healthcare, Trumpism, family and homophobia peppered between personal lamentations and exaltations widen the scope of the play and help the audience empathize with the storyteller’s harrowing accident and subsequent rebirth.
All of this comes with a commanding and confident performance by Casey, whose passion and intensity breathes life into the work. Entering from the back of the theatre wearing only a pair of ankle-high boots and a floral-print circle skirt, Casey begins the play with a proud sense of authority and confidence that persists throughout the piece. The monologues that make up “What Happens To Boys In Chelsea” are challenging sprints of clever wordplay and juicy turns of phrase, but Casey makes them feel natural and honest. There is a rhythm to Casey’s words, often accompanied by a singsong delivery that centers the play and lifts its heaviest moments. Between the non-existent set and the natural flow of poetic verse, there’s an unmistakable beatnik quality in the way Casey phrases his lines and lets words linger around the stage.
That feeling of spoken-word poetry is one of the play’s greatest strengths, but it can be problematic, too. Early in the show, Casey reaches for a thick stack of pages on a nearby stool and performs much of the play heavily consulting his notes. “What Happens To Boys In Chelsea” is at its best when Casey locks eyes with the audience and pours out his soul to the crowd. While his use of notes is hardly unprofessional, it does distract slightly from an otherwise captivating performance.
But by the end, this small hiccup is subverted into one of the show’s most memorable moments. As the play draws to a close, Casey admits that the notes he’d been reading from represent his attempt to “write it down,” a means of processing and working through his trauma. The script pages are both a prop and a living document symbolizing his struggle to move forward in the wake of incredible suffering. He holds his pages close to his chest, allowing the light to reflect off their surface and beam into the audience. In an act of rage and triumph, he hurls the pages against a side wall and stretches out his arms, as though to cleanse himself of his pain. So, what is it that happens to boys in Chelsea? Casey answers wordlessly as he lifts his head to the ceiling. They survive, and they thrive.
“What Happens To Boys In Chelsea”
Written and Performed by Ryan F. Casey
Sept. 20 at 7:30pm
Stage Manager: Holly Sansom
Photo: courtesy of the production
United Solo 2018
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
JAMES BARTHOLOMEW is a writer and musician living in New York City. He is an administrator of the Fordham University Theatre Program and an avid lover of the arts.