What good are men? What purpose do they serve these days?

Anyone willing to entertain the question will find Spencer Deering’s new play Sheep’s Clothing (premiered by PURE Theatre last month) insightful and hilarious.

The premise is simple enough. Take four high school coaches, each roughly representative of a different stage in a man’s life, and closely observe them as they come to grips with an assault on their core beliefs: about themselves, about manhood in general, and the way of the world.

Think of it as locker-room anthropology.

George, often called by his nickname, “Sweetness,” is the veteran campaigner. Nat Jones plays him as a lovable old salt, a grumbling reminder that while there may be snow on the roof, there’s still fire in his belly.

Josh Wilhoit’s Dan, the youngest of the four, is the least sure of his place. He still wears adulthood as though it were his father’s hand-me-down suit of clothes.

Paul Whitty as Luggs is everything his name conjures up: overweight, over-tired, and overly confident of his position in the scheme of things until Steven, the newest coach, arrives.

Brian DeCosta’s Steven — not, Luggs notes archly, “Steve” — is the most conflicted, contradictory sort. He is the enlightened, 21st-century guy, the sort of sensitive, politically-correct animal who would drive Luggs beyond the pale if it weren’t for the fact that Steven is dating a much younger woman.

Which makes his otherwise suspect character all right. But it’s Steven’s trauma that’s destined to upset everything in this tight little world.

What binds these men together is a shared sense of responsibility for the task they see before them: to guide barely fledged young men — restless, hormonally unbalanced teenagers — on their first steps toward manhood. To shape the men these boys will become. The question is — which shape is the correct one?

Deering presents this process as what it is: no elegantly simple, attractively linear progression but a series of fitful negotiations. In Deering’s loving appreciation for this process, it’s less a water-tight vessel for education than a leaky old boat, men tugging boys along in uncertain waters.

The locker room is the sanctuary for these deliberations between men and boys, a safe haven for uncertainty. The play manages to straddle opposing viewpoints. The cast runs riot in the intervening open space. Steven’s sin is introducing a woman — the school’s principal Jane (Pam Nichols) — into the dialogue. All hell gleefully breaks loose.

The play’s dialogue is replete with telling one-liners, so many they threaten to slip the net entirely, lost among the enormous haul Deering pulls up for the audience. Luggs blistering assessment of the neutering of his world — “First it was gym, then phys ed., and now — Kinetic Wellness!” — is a typical, razor-sharp throw-away line.

Deering’s affection for his topic shines in every line. Even as Luggs’ orderly universe is undermined at every turn, he and the other coaches prove that they are necessary. To one another, if to no one else. —Jon Santiago

Sheep’s Clothing Piccolo Theatre Series $25 90 mins. May 22-25 at 5:30 p.m.

Lance Hall at Circular Congregational Church, 150 Meeting St. (888) 374-2656

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