‘Wolf Play’ Off Broadway Review: An Internet-Era Custody Battle Over an Adopted Boy

Hansol Jung’s new play examines the growing phenomenon of adoption by Yahoo!

wolf play
Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Occasionally, you learn things at the theater. For instance, a recent Playbill quotes from news articles about Americans using “Yahoo! message boards, Facebook groups and other online sites to ‘re-home’ unwanted children….” Most of these children are international adoptees, and “between 1 and 5 percent of U.S. adoptions get legally dissolved each year.” The process is called “re-homing.”

Hansol Jung considerably complicates this complicated dilemma for a 6-year-old South Korean boy when his first adoptive parent unknowingly “gives” the child away to a same-sex couple. Jung’s “Wolf Play” opened Monday at Soho Rep, and is presented in association with the Ma-Yi Theater Company.

I rarely watch Lifetime TV, and it’s doubtful the cable network would handle such a subject, but there are aspects of “Wolf Play” that seem tailor made for that Lifetime audience: As as soon as it becomes apparent that one parent, Robin (Nicole Villamil), has facilitated this unusual adoption and the her non-binary partner, Ash (Esco Jouley), does not like kids being bartered on Yahoo!, we know immediately which new adoptive parent the kid is going to bond with. Jealousy between Robin and Ash ensues, of course.

Not so Lifetime is another debate that fuels “Wolf Play.” It emerges when the first adoptive parent, Peter (Aubie Merrylees), realizes he is not dumping the kid off at the home of a typical married couple, and the testosterone continues to flow with Robin and Ash’s relative Ryan (Brandon Mendez Homer), who has doubts about a man not being involved in raising the boy. A similar dynamic was explored fleetingly years ago in the 1979 film “Manhattan”; the lesbian couple (Meryl Streep and Diane Ludwig) give the son ballet lessons and Woody Allen takes him to the park to play football. The couple in “Wolf Play” are somewhat less stereotypical. Robin introduces the boy to yoga and piano lessons. But what their adopted son really likes to do is watch Ash, an aspiring professional boxer, beat the crap out of people.

This is where Jung’s play gets the title “Wolf Play.” A “wolf” (Mitchell Winter) operates the boy, which is a life-size puppet. I didn’t know anything about the “re-homing” of adopted children, but I learned much more about wolves than I ever wanted to know watching “Wolf Play.” Jung may be telling us that some people are wolves at heart and other people are not? So let the howling begin?

Dustin Wills direction of “Wolf Play” takes a bare-bones approach that ultimately turns messy. The tiny Soho Rep stage at first looks fairly empty (set by You-Shin Chen) but soon becomes littered with more props and paraphernalia and stuff than a spoiled kid’s bedroom. Maybe that’s the point.

Winter attempts to play a wolf, complete with a canine-eared cap (costumes by Enver Chakartash), but he is far more successful operating the puppet, which is often endearing. (Anthony Minghella’s production of “Madama Butterfly” at the Met Opera uses a similar puppet to portray the child Dolore.) Actors playing animals are almost always cringe-inducing. Fortunately, the other actors have far more conventional tasks, with Jouley delivering an outstanding performance. This actor speaks just a little softer than everybody else on stage – Winter is often yelling and howling – and commands us to listen a little more closely to Ash’s point of view. An aura of quiet mystery and deep gravitas travels with this character throughout “Wolf Play.”