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The Xylophone West at the Fine Print Theatre Company | Theater review

A new play makes the phenomenon of teenage bullying fresh and fearsome.

Photograph: Gretchen Kelley
Donnie Sheldon in The Xylophone West at the Fine Print Theatre Company

Bullying isn’t just the province of cyber-savvy webcam spy kids, as in the Tyler Clementi case; old-fashioned groupthink starts early. Alex Lubischer’s new play is a haunting meditation on bullying in a small Nebraska town. Not a simplistic tale of good and evil, The Xylophone West considers the lasting marks of violence in a homophobic culture.

Led by Doc (Christian Stokes), Patrick’s (Donnie Sheldon) basketball teammates taunt and eventually assault him, breaking his arm. The play’s nonlinear chronology places this devastating scene early—both climax and inciting action. The "Xylophone West" is the name Patrick gives the westbound train tracks Patrick decides to take to California where, as his friend Shane (David Weiss) assures him, there are a lot of guys like them. The hope of this escape plan is perhaps too easily thwarted in a plot twist that returns Patrick to his hometown, where he must come to terms with his teammates and his own violent impulses.

Certain scenes, including that locker-room harassment, are so vividly presented here I squirmed in my seat—as if the horror of this prevalent social reality had been brought to life for the first time. This is the triumph of Fine Print’s production, directed and performed with an exciting, bold professionalism. Director Josh Sobel infuses the entire show, including his swift, inventive scene changes, with the suffocating aura of small-town brutality; expert light and sound design heighten the mood. While some scenes and subplots, including Patrick’s relationship with his mother, feel uninspired and slightly cliché, Fine Print renders a work of social realism immediate and fresh through the old-fashioned tools of solid ensemble theater.

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