February 24, 2024

Hailing the High-Camp Virtues of "Oh, Mary!"

If I had access to a time machine one stop I’d make would be sometime around 1960 at Caffe Cino in Greenwich Village where young playwrights like John Guare, Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson staged daringly offbeat shows and up-and-coming actors like Bernadette Peters, Al Pacino and Bette Midler performed in some of them. Of course that kind of time travel isn’t currently available but the next best thing might be seeing Oh, Mary!, the proudly queer and unabashedly ridiculous comedy that has just been extended at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through May 5.

Oh, Mary! is the nonbinary playwright Cole Escola’s bizarro-world version of Mary Todd Lincoln’s activities in the weeks leading up to the assassination of her husband at Ford’s Theatre on April 15, 1865. It’s filled with swishing hoop skirts, swishy leading men, secret love affairs and a liquor-swilling First Lady who wants more than anything to be—of all thingsa cabaret star. 

Escola has said that they did almost no research before writing Oh, Mary! (click here to read more about that). Instead the show cheerfully cherry picks hearsay about the Lincolns (Mary’s reportedly high-strung personality; Abe's supposedly gay proclivities) that will lend themselves to jokes that are silly (the show’s Mary keeps asking who’s fighting in the Civil War) or raunchy (an aide-de-camp brings new meaning to the role of a president's body man).

This kind of high-camp stuff can wear out its welcome pretty fast. But Escola, wearing a wig with sausage curls and looking like Sutton Foster’s deranged kid sister, is so delightfully daffy as Mary that it’s almost impossible to resist this show’s outrageous lunacy. 

The cast and design crew commit to the hijinks too and director Sam Pinkleton has made sure they're all on the same page of the playbook. The witty sets by the design team known as Dots frolic on the line between realism and parody. And the period-appropriate costumes by Holly Pierson and Astor Yang are in on the joke too. 

Meanwhile the five cast members gamely tweak stock roles taken straight out of a 19th century melodrama. But no one breaks character or mugs unnecessarily (although there is plenty of appropriate mugging). Conrad Ricamora is particularly terrific as a Lincoln torn between managing the war, managing his uncivil wife and managing his uncontrollable libido.

Similarly, James Scully is pitch perfect as a tutor the president hires to keep Mary occupied and Scully not only makes for a hunky juvenile lead but delivers a Shakespeare soliloquy that would make any RSC grad proud. And Bianca Leigh and Tony Macht are just as winning in smaller roles. 

Comparisons to the works of Charles Ludlam and Charles Busch are inevitable but Escola brings a deadpan mischievousness to the drag damsel in distress that is utterly unique and deliciously goofy. The result is an 80-minute gigglefest. And who doesn't need a good laugh in these trying times.  

February 17, 2024

"I Love You So Much I Could Die" is Too Intimate for Its Own Good—Or Anyone's

Valentine’s Day was celebrated this past week and the new show I Love You So Much I Could Die, which opened at New York Theatre Workshop on Feb. 14, struck me as an ultimate gesture of love. 

For this playlet—it runs barely more than an hour—was written and performed by Mona Pirnot and directed by her husband Lucas Hnath and it’s unlikely that the show would have been done in such a prestigious venue if they weren't cashing in on the cultural cachet that Hnath has earned as the playwright of such inventive works as A Doll’s House, Part 2 and Dana H.

I don’t mean that as a put down. I Love You So Much is Pirnot’s attempt to deal with the kind of deep grief that any loving spouse would do anything to ease. So kudos to Hnath for being that kind of husband and to Pirnot for having the good sense to hook up with that kind of guy (click here to read more about the couple). But alas, I can’t extend kudos to their show. 

It’s a minimalist affair that takes place on a bare stage, furnished solely with a small desk and chair, a lamp, a laptop hooked up to a speaker, and a guitar sitting on a stand. Pirnot, the sole performer, spends the entire time seated with her back to the audience while a male text-to-audio voice on the computer reads what seem to be diary entries recording her responses to a tragic event involving her sister, although the exact nature of that tragedy is never revealed.

Periodically, Pirnot clicks off the computer, picks up the guitar and, still staring at the back wall of the theater, sings in a wan voice a few songs that further express her grief.  

It’s not unusual for artists to pour their pain into their work. But the goal should be to transform that pain into something that’s larger than just one person's experience. Here, however, withholding the details of the trauma and any visceral intimacy with Pirnot, limits the show's ability to do that. 

People should be allowed to grieve in whatever way comforts them and as someone who is also currently in mourning, I sincerely hope this show brings Pirnot and Hnath some solace. But I also wish they had found some way to bring me something too.     

February 10, 2024

"The Connector" Fails to Connect With Me

Journalists love stories about journalism. We even love the stories that cast us in a bad light. And I'll admit that’s part of the reason that The Connector, which was inspired by the stories of the notoriously disgraced journalists Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, ended up on the list of the four shows I was most excited to see during this spring season.

But that wasn’t the only reason. I also wanted to see The Connector because the show is a new musical by Jason Robert Brown, whose earlier shows Parade and The Bridges of Madison County rank among my all-time favorites. And on top of that, The Connector brings the always-likable Scott Bakula back to the New York stage for the first time in 35 years (click here to read more about him). But alas as it turned out, I ended up not liking The Connector much at all.

Jonathan Marc Sherman' book for the show, which opened at MCC Theater this week, purports to tell the story of the rise and fall of a young journalist named Ethan Dobson who gets his dream job at a New Yorker-style magazine called The Connector and then immediately starts fabricating stories. Ben Levi Ross, one of the replacements in Dear Evan Hansen, brings a nebbishy Ben Platt-like intensity to both acting and singing the role of Ethan.

As Sherman imagines it, Ethan’s boss Conrad, who’s amiably played by Bakula, is totally taken in by the younger man because they both went to Princeton, like the same drinks, share a reverence for the magazine where they work—and are both guys.  

More suspicious of Ethan are three women: Robin, a co-worker (and undeveloped love interest) who is also talented but overlooked and is played by Hannah Cruz; Muriel, the magazine’s no-nonsense fact checker played by Jessica Molaskey; and Mona, a busybody reader who keeps writing in to point out mistakes in The Connector who’s played by Mylinda Hull. 

That’s a lot of story and I haven’t even mentioned the stuff about the venture capitalists buying the magazine or Robin feeling as though she isn’t getting ahead because she’s a Latina. Sherman has a hard time keeping up with all of it too and his pacing is off. 

The show runs nearly two hours without intermission but we’re almost halfway through it before the deception narrative really clicks in. And it’s never made clear what’s driving Ethan to lie when it seems that he’s perfectly talented enough to report and write decent stories on his own.

But what disappointed me even more was Brown’s score. The story is set in the ‘90s, a particularly fertile period for the pop music that usually informs his scores. But no grunge, neo-soul, techno or even boy-band sounds pop up in the music for The Connector. Instead what we get is a remix of stuff that Brown’s done before.

The rousing number in which a dubious witness adapts a black style of music to tell his false tale (here it’s rap, and not particularly good rap) was just like the rousing number when a dubious witness adapts a black style of music (there it was gospel) to tell his false tale in Parade. Similarly Robin’s lament about her stalled career reminded me a lot of Cathy's lament about hers in Brown’s The Last Five Years. 

Several critics claim to have been moved by the ballad “Proof,” Muriel’s climactic 11 o’clock number, but by the time I got home from the theater, I couldn’t remember its words or melody, or, for that matter, those of any of the tunes in the show. 

And I couldn’t figure out why the biggest production numbers centered around minor characters in the show. It’s fun to see Ethan’s fabrications brought to life and Max Crumm and Fergie Phillippe do terrific jobs animating them but some of that time might have been better spent delving deeper into the main story.

In fact my biggest problem with The Connector is that I’m not sure what that main story is or what the show wants to say. The idea for The Connector originated with its director Daisy Prince, who has said she first started thinking about it when the Glass and Blair scandals happened back in the ‘90s (click here to read more about the show’s genesis). But times have changed.

Our current concerns about journalism are now rightly focused on media companies that knowingly peddle fake news and on disinformation campaigns conducted on social media. And that by comparison can't help making the foibles of an overly ambitious kid—and an overly ambitious show—seem a little trite.

February 3, 2024

Why "Jonah" Isn't the One For Me

Sometimes you just don’t get a show. Maybe its subject triggers you or fails to grab you at all. Maybe the playwright was trying to do too much or the director didn’t do enough. Or maybe you were grumpy because getting to the theater was such a hassle or you were tired because it had been a long week. I’m not sure what the reason is but I’m going to be honest with you: I didn’t get Jonah, the new play that opened at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre this week. 

I got enough to understand that the show centers around a young woman named Ana and her interactions with three men over the course of several years in her life. But this is not an easy play in any sense of the word. Playwright Rachel Bonds clearly wants to explore the different mechanisms people use to cope with trauma. So there are lots of references to domestic violence and self-harm. 

And because the narrative shifts back and forth in time, it’s not easy to follow what’s going on either. The male characters keep popping up out of nowhere and falling (sometimes literally) right back into nothingness. The promotional materials try to make a virtue of all of this: “Jonah is not all he seems,” said the press release referring to one of Ana’s three men. The Playbill advises that the action takes place in “The past and the present. But everything is slippery.”

Too slippery for me. The play opens with a teenage Ana at a New England boarding school, where she says her mother sent her. But at another point she says that her mother died when she was 11. We're apparently supposed to figure out what's true but after awhile the intentional elusiveness of such an unreliable narrator can become unintentionally alienating.

The lighting and sound designs work hard to clarify the transitions from one reality to another but the set, which is supposed to stand in for three separate locations, seems to have just given up: too large and too anonymous for a boarding school dorm room, a suburban home bedroom or the studio space at the writers' retreat where the adult Ana has taken refuge to work on a book.

But the thing that put me off most was the casting. Now all four of the actors are fantastic. Hagan Oliveras exudes puppyish charm as Ana’s high school crush, the titular Jonah. Samuel H. Levine is brooding but charismatic as her emotionally-damaged stepbrother Danny. And John Zdrojeski brings a sweet goofiness to the role of Steven, Ana’s neighbor at the writers’ retreat. 

Ana is played by Gaby Beans, who carries the heaviest load—never leaving the stage during the show’s 100 or so minutes—and she does it with an unflashy finesse. But Beans is Black and that fact is never acknowledged in this production. Which left me confused. All three of the guys are obsessed with Ana. Is that because she’s Black? Or is Beans, proudly sporting long micro-braids, supposed to be playing a white woman? 

There are a few lines that allude to race (“What do you mean, you people,” Ana asks one of the men) but those occasional references are just asides. In a play like this one that pivots around sexual and family tensions, race would surely matter. And if Bonds and director Danya Taymor insist on believing that it doesn’t, why have they cast all the guys with white-presenting actors?

Bonds writes both funny and intense dialog. I can imagine drama students doing monologues and dialogs from Jonah for years to come. And I respect her desire not to spoon feed her audience but it's not pandering to suggest which spoon might be most useful for them. If she wants us to go through the pain, then in return shouldn't we get at least the possibility of relief?

Someone at Roundabout seems to have a thing for these kinds of trauma dramas. Last spring, the Laura Pels played host to Primary Trust, another play in which a trauma survivor depends on protective fantasy. But that show offered a satisfying, if incomplete, resolution (click here to listen to an interview I did with its author). 

Jonah doesn’t even try to offer hope or even to make its intentions clear. Which left me unsatisfied. But that apparently is just me. Most critics seem quite taken with Jonah (click here to read some of those reviews) and the New York Times has made the show a Critic’s Pick. So I guess you’ll just have to go see this one and make up your own mind.