Summer theatre adventures in New York

Jaquel Spivey in A Strange Loop, photo by Marc J Franklin.

By Liz Nicholls,

New York City last week 

It started in a heart-warming cross-border exchange, with trimmings. In the mezzanine of the Lyceum Theatre on West 45th 15 minutes before curtain on a Thursday night performance of the Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning musical A Strange Loop. 

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So there we were, finding ourselves sitting next to an amiable Brooklynite in his 60s and his husband (‘welcome to our row!”). They’d come to Toronto to get married back when it wasn’t an American option, so were  kindly disposed to Canada, and Canadian theatre (and knew of Edmonton from, you guessed!, the Fringe). Somehow inevitably, it turned out he was an emerging playwright — ‘emerging’ isn’t a matter of age, after all — after a career as an IT expert. And he was excited about workshops of “my stuff” in Miami, an upcoming production in a Big Apple community theatre, honourable mentions in 10-minute play competitions….  

Jaquel Spivey in A Strange Loop. Photo by Marc J Franklin

It seemed like a sign, a possible loop of its own. Especially since A Strange Loop is, in its own very meta originality, the defiant manifesto of a playwright in progress. “Big, black, and queer-ass American Broadway,” it’s a veritable loop-de-loop of a musical, about a gay Black man struggling to write a musical called A Strange Loop about a gay Black man struggling to write a musical called A Strange Loop about a gay Black man … himself. 

He’s Usher (the endearing Jaquel Spivey, direct to Broadway from theatre school), who works, in another loop, as an usher at The Lion King. And the challenging, messy, funny/angry musical by Michael R. Jackson happens at intermission, which is amusing in itself. Tormented and exasperated, Usher’s Black queer artist identity is assailed and undermined by his own Thoughts, six of them, the saboteurs within. They’re wonderfully performed by the ensemble in Stephen Brackett’s production, who appear through elevator doors and include Daily Self-Loathing and Sexual Ambivalence. 

Not only is Usher is flailing against the white entertainment status quo, and his own “Inner White Girl,’ as he puts it (not to mention the shark tank of dating sites where low self-esteem is a trail of blood in the water), he’s up against the paradigms of Blackness. And this classic: his parents are not only old-school artist-averse but out-and-out homophobic. 

If he must be an artist (god forbid), at least he should emulate the Black commercialism of Taylor Perry, reigning monarch of the Black gospel show (A Strange Loop pauses to stage an extended sample). And there are other pressures, too, on Usher from “acceptable” Black narratives like police violence or slavery — to give audience allies “something intersectional to hold onto.” 

It doesn’t seem to quite hold together, and the whole thing is a bit repetitive (well, it is about loops). But the playfulness, invention and fierce humour of it are unexpected. And the songs and lyrics have a smart, caustic wit to them. A Black musical comedy set in the conflicted mind of a Black queer artist about Black queer experience, riotous and poignant, is a one-of-a-kind. The run has just been extended through January 2023.  

At the Public Theatre in the East Village, where you need both a mask and a proof of vaccine, Fat Ham, very funny, joyful, and  insightful, is a riotous take on … Hamlet. For a good time, with dancing, great food, karaoke, Elsinore’s always been the place, right?

Fat Ham, Public Theatre

“Who says tragedy has to be tragic?” is the billing. James Ijames 2022 Pulitzer Prize winner takes us into the heart of a Black family who run a North Carolina barbecue joint — at a raucous backyard party where “ay, there’s the rub” really sticks. Juicy, the Hamlet of the piece, is an endearingly morose, exasperated possibly queer Southern college kid, taking Human Resources (the wit of Fat Ham marinates through and through). And he’s played by an endearing actor Marcel Spears who commands a whole lexicon of physical whatever shrugs and eye-rolls, surrounded as he is by the most maddening relatives who lament his “softness.” 

Will Juicy find himself and come into his own?   

He wears a Momma’s Boy T-shirt, a gift from his doting ma (Nikki Crawford), freshly widowed, who’s just gotten married to her late hubby’s bro, Rev. Hamlet’s best pal Horatio is reinvented as an entertaining wise-ass with lurid prophetic video game-type dreams. And the Ophelia and Laertes siblings are re-cast too, with sexual identity crises of their own. 

Bits of the Shakespeare text are expertly woven through Fat Ham. And a Shakespeare play propelled by revenge, escalating in violence and leaving the stage littered with dead bodies, takes on a joyful cast. The Black characters, in effect, just refuse to be in a tragedy. The matinee audience, me among them, had a wonderful time. 

I felt lucky to see the revival of Company (which goes on tour at the end of the month). For one thing, who wants to pass up the chance to see a great cast including Patti Lupone with a 14-piece orchestra to accompany some of the wittiest, most insightful songs in the musical theatre canon? The seminal 1970 Sondheim musical that radically had snapshots made into a group portrait of married life (instead of a story), was famously gender-flipped this season by the Brit director Marianne Elliott. Bobby, the eternal bachelor afraid of commitment, has become Bobbie (Katrina Lenk). And she stands at the perimeter of her circle of friends, couples in the ambivalent marital landscape of the big city — the very one where you can leave the theatre, have dinner outside on a soft summer evening, and discuss. 

I’d be quite prepared to see Company as a period piece, despite what time has done to the waning cultural imperative to be married. But to me, the update works just fine, since Bobbie has the additional impetus, as a woman in her ‘30s, of the biological clock.

What seems timeless in a much different way is American Buffalo, which dates from the decades before the playwright went right-wing batshit crazy. David Mamet’s high-speed go-nowhere 1975 back comedy about the small-time two-bit hustler underbelly of  American capitalism and masculinity, was back. A superb cast — Sam Rockwell, Laurence Fishburne and Darren Criss — bit into the signature Mamet staccato rhythms as a trio of collaborators plotting a heist you know from the start is doomed by their own fundamental ineptitude and venality.  

It happened at Circle in the Square, a Broadway theatre in which the audience is wrapped around a long gangway stage on three sides. The set was a junk shop absolutely crammed, every which way, with stuff. And since the audience was so close (we were four rows away, in the cheap seats), it was the first Broadway production to step forward and extend the mask requirement at least for the summer from the July 1 cut-off where it became optional. Other theatres immediately followed suit.

photo by Alan Kellogg

At every show I saw in New York, incidentally, the audience was masked. No refreshments were allowed in the theatre (the usual dodge for pulling down a mask and never pulling it up again). And the requirement was strictly enforced by ushers with flashlights. “Sir, pull that mask over your nose, too; it’s not doing any good that way. Or you’ll have to leave.” Note to Canadian theatres: confidence-inspiring.  

The Minutes, Studio 54.

The toughest-minded show I saw was The Minutes by Tracy Letts  (August: Osage Country) at Studio 54. Set at a small-town council meeting — the minutes of last week’s meeting aren’t yet ready for distribution — it starts as a funny, deftly detailed satire of the niggling minutiae of American democracy, Our Town division, at work. And the ending, which I mustn’t tell you about, takes down American complacency about its history in a way that is truly shocking. The cast, which included a fair complement of Steppenwolf actors and one Canadian (Noah Reid of Schitt’s Creek fame), was terrific. 

As for many of you, dear readers, it had been a while, two-and-a-half years and a few trip cancellations, since I’d been in New York. And it felt special to be back, in the summer, walking through Central Park en route to the theatre. A lot of favourite little cafes hadn’t made it through COVID, to be sure. But theatre, live and in-person, had.

It had weathered all sorts of punishing setbacks and difficult industry adjustments (the “understudy” lists were as long as the casts). Not only that (judging by a small sample), Broadway theatre was welcoming surprising, challenging fare, and excitingly diverse talent, in addition to the usual Great (traditionally) White Way array of musical blockbusters. You could feel the future expanding, in spite of it all. And that felt fine.




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