Skin games: Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin comes to the San Francisco stage

Skin games: Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin comes to the San Francisco stage

Erika Milvy

Mysterious Skin * Adapted by Prince Gomolvilas * Directed by Arturo Catricala * Starring Taylor Valentine, Rebecca Fisher * New Conservatory Theatre, San Francisco * Through June 28

Scott Heim’s acclaimed 1995 novel, Mysterious Skin, uses UFOs as both plot and metaphor in the tale of a Kansas teen trying to solve the riddle of his own alienation. And Prince Gomolvilas’s worthy theatrical adaptation–now receiving its world premiere at San Francisco’s New Conservatory Theatre Center–retains the novel’s sorrowful intensity. Warning: Plot spoilers follow.

Now 18, Brian had a blackout at age 8 that left him shaken and unable to account for the previous five hours. Learning that this may mean he’s been contacted by aliens, Brian begins to investigate his own possible abduction. But he discovers that the poking and probing he vaguely recalls was at the hands of his little league coach, not extraterrestrials.

Brian’s recovered memory hits both him and us like a ton of bricks, even though many of us saw it coming–a credit to the robust performances in Arturo Catricala’s taut production. As the desperately seeking Brian, Taylor Valentine is sweetly broken, leaping with both relief and apprehension toward the answers provided by his fellow abductee, Avalyn. Pricelessly played by Rebecca Fisher, Avalyn is a lonely misfit thrilled to find a friend. Her hunger for companionship and her fixation on UFOs would make the character unspeakably sad were it not for Fisher’s quirky rendering.

In search of the Little Leaguer who appears in his nightmares, Brian tracks down Neff, now a New York hustler who is inexplicably drawn to much older men–and who, sadly, has the answers Brian needs. At this point the play’s descriptions of both sexual abuse and the mind-molding power of a child abuser are disturbing, forthright, and believable.

The New York scenes in which Neff (an ultimately affecting performance by Joseph Parks) shares his sexcapades with his best friend, Wendy, are less compelling. In her fag hag flamboyance, Megan Towle is much too “on” as Wendy. Her full-throttle energy, even as she mothers Neff on safety, disenchants.

Too-brief scenes and cheesy sound effects also hamper the play’s power. But the principal actors’ grief and intensity keep the drama razor-sharp and lacerating.

Milvy has written for Entertainment Weekly, Vanity Fair, and Premiere.

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