Don’t call it a comeback, but New York City’s irreverent theater troupe Vampire Cowboys are back with REVENGE SONG, a scorched-earth musical farce set—mostly—in seventeenth-century France.
Julie d’Aubigny—a queer, cross-dressing swordswoman—and her band of lovers and adversaries turn the sarcasm up to ten in this unexpected Geffen Playhouse diversion written by Qui Nguyen and directed by Robert Ross Parker.
“Satire is what closes on Saturday night,” opined playwright and wit George S. Kaufman, but Cowboys co-founder Nguyen concocts a hilarious mix of aggression and buffoonery, scored with contemporary hip-hop and 1980s-style power ballads. The brilliant comedic timing of Margaret Odette (Julie) and Amy Kim Waschke (as MC Madame de Senneterre) bring these hardcore heroines to raucous life.
To experience a thing as beauty means: to experience it necessarily wrongly. — Nietzsche
For Elliot Isaac (Harry Groener)—70-year-old chairman emeritus of a definitive American fashion brand, ensconsed in what looks like a John Pawson-designed residence with a thick slab of 20-year-old meat named Trey (Will Brittain)—lust is the drug, and the drug is life.
Elliot and Trey’s happy West Village home has been invaded by Elliot’s daughter Jodi and her son Benjamin, both of whom have dropped in unannounced to celebrate the paterfamilias’ birthday. Jodi—in dire need of a shoulder to kvetch on because her ex-husband just married a 24-year-old woman—is in no mood to deal with daddy’s latest trick, no matter how many times Trey insists that he and the iconic designer are “partners.” (The only thing that comes between Trey and his benefactor is an Elliot Isaac jockstrap.)
So begins Joshua Harmon’s new comedy SKINTIGHT, “a funny play about sad people,” in the words of its playwright—saddened, no doubt, by the transactional nature of life and its inherent betrayals. Turning disenchantment into scorched-earth comedy is Harmon’s signature, and the GeffenPlayhouse production of SKINTIGHT features a pair of master class performances in the art of landing and sustaining a joke.
Elliot’s birthday—which he has no interest in celebrating—is an excuse for his daughter to weigh in on a lifetime of paternal abandonment. And if Jodi (Idina Menzel, running on all cylinders in a part written for her) excoriates everyone around her with slashing wit and mock pathos, Benjamin (Eli Gelb), in a series of slo-mo reaction takes, gets the big laughs. Watching mother and son conspire to rid the family house of its interloper, share a porn video, or compete for queer cultural-awareness points is pure voyeuristic pleasure. (Not to mention Trey—Will Brittain—in the aforementioned jockstrap, which provides a marvelous Act Two sight gag for Menzel.)
Near the end of the play, Jodi, in a last attempt at connection, asks her father (Harry Groener) to explain the importance of “hotness,” a marketing concept that has generated untold wealth for the family. Elliot launches into an extended verbal essay on the beauty of Trey’s skin and the smell of sex in the morning. Jodi feels that her father is confusing his appreciation of Trey’s pulchritude with love: “That’s lust. Lust is easy. Love is hard.”
But Jodi—and Nietzsche—have it wrong, at least in the case of Elliot. Jodi was raised by a man whose first desire and last remaining vice is the possession of things and their surfaces. For Elliot, “love” and “lust” are distinctions without a difference.
After all, one suspects that Elliot doesn’t love Trey more or less than any number of boys he’s gone through over the decades, including Jeff (Jeff Skowron), the once-young, now-middle-aged majordomo Elliot employs. It’s just that Elliot is now in his eighth decade and this might be his valedictory ride around the rodeo: Trey is the last trick up his perfectly cuffed sleeve.
SKINTIGHT was directed by Daniel Aukin and the scenic design is by Lauren Helpern.
Joshua Harmon, Skintight, Geffen Playhouse, September–October 2019, from top: IdinaMenzel; Eli Gelb and Menzel; Will Brittain and Harry Groener; Gelb, Menzel, and Brittain; Gelb and Brittain; Menzel and Groener; Groener, Menzel, Gelb, and Brittain; Gelb and Menzel. Photographs by Chris Whitaker.
“To describe a life is to paraphrase it; and to paraphrase is to set the original aside. Removed from immediate consciousness, a described life is not merely past, not merely an article of memory. It becomes the occasion of a narrative that closes on a heinous injustice, or several; it sacrifices on the altar of abstraction those moments of the living person that were singular and unrepeatable, irreducibly human.” — Darby English*
On our college campuses and in THE NICETIES—the textually rich new play by Eleanor Burgess—the groves of academe are riven with theoretical landmines. At issue onstage at the GeffenPlayhouse is the subject of history—how it should be taught and who should do the teaching.
Janine Bosko (Lisa Banes) is a highly regarded professor at an Ivy League university. Convinced that good intentions and steadfast devotion to primary sources shield her from criticism, she meets with one of her students—Zoe (Jordan Boatman)—to discuss her thesis on the American Revolution. Professor Bosko finds the paper intelligently written but fundamentally flawed, too reliant on the subjectivity of its author. For her part, Zoe has determined that, in the hands of her professor, history is an insidious instrument blocking social change.**
This brilliantly performed discourse on representation, identity, and justice versus revenge was directed by Kimberly Senior in a production transferred intact from the Manhattan Theatre Club. Burgess does not insult her audience with easy resolutions, and the debate continued long after the curtain went down.
By the mid-1950s, Nat “King” Cole was one of the biggest singing stars in the world and the most prominent African-American, by far, to host his own television variety show. The Nat King ColeShow aired for just over a year during NBC’s 1956–1957 season and drew only one national sponsor—the makers of Arrid deodorant bought a few months of airtime. The slack was taken up by a number of local alcoholic beverage companies—Rheingold in New York, Regal beer in New Orleans, rotgut Thunderbird in Chicago—who didn’t seem to share Madison Avenue’s fear of a boycott once eyes in the South got a look at Cole sharing the stage with such white, female stars as June Christy, Margaret Whiting, Peggy Lee, Gogi Grant, and the raw and raucous Betty Hutton. (Heads must have exploded across the country when mixed-race couple PearlBailey and Louis Bellson appeared as Cole’s guests in July 1957.)
This is the story from which playwright and actor Colman Domingo and writer-director Patricia McGregor have crafted LIGHTS OUT: NAT “KING” COLE, their short and bracing blend of show-stopping entertainment, social activism, and American Grand Guignol, set on December 17, 1957, the final night of the broadcast.
The drama begins with Cole (DuléHill, a picture of grace under pressure) sitting at his dressing-room table, contemplating his future and enduring the indignity of the studio’s make-up artist (Mary-Pat Green) reluctantly lightening his skin with powder. Visited by memories, hallucinations, and nightmares, Cole is confronted with the question: Will he call out the racism and abuse that were/are a part of everyday life for black men and women in this country, no matter how successful, or will he remain the singer white America loved to listen to, but not share a meal with—smooth, dignified, reserved Nat Cole?*
The angel-devil on Cole’s shoulder pushing him to break out of his shell is the triple-threat Rat Packer Sammy Davis, Jr., played by Daniel J. Watts as a delight of motor-mouth megalomania. Singing, swinging, mugging, telling jokes, imitating Cole, and—midway through the show—joining the headliner in a cathartic tap-dance duel that brought down the house, Davis is Cole’s conscience, a release valve for his eleventh-hour breakdown.
About the showstoppers: In addition to the tap number, the vocalists ZonyaLove (as Cole’s mother) and Ruby Lewis (as Betty Hutton, singing Frank Loesser’s “I Wish I Didn’t Love You So”) nail their big numbers and school the audience in Fifties-style professionalism, and Gisela Adisa brilliantly captures the erotic cheek and wonderful feline absurdity of Eartha Kitt.
Edgar Godineaux is the show’s choreographer, and tap and additional choreography are by Jared Grimes. The tight music and vocal arrangements and orchestrations by John McDaniel live up to those by the legendary Nelson Riddle, portrayed upstage with his live band led by David Witham.**
*Six months before the premiere of his television show, Cole was attacked and beaten on stage in Birmingham, Alabama.
**In addition to Witham on keyboards, Greg Porée plays guitar, Edwin Livingston is the bassist, and Brian Miller handles drums and percussion.
From top: Dulé Hill as Nat “King” Cole in Lights Out—Nat “King” Cole, Geffen Playhouse, 2019; Hill and Daniel J. Watts as Sammy Davis, Jr.; Hill and Gisela Adisa as Eartha Kitt; Hill and Ruby Lewis as Betty Hutton; Watts and Hill; Hill. Photographs by JeffLorch.
CONSTELLATIONS, at the Geffen Playhouse, belies the writers’ workshop trope “Show, don’t tell.” Through an intoxicating swirl of dialogs—stopping, starting, switching, alternating, repeating—we learn how Marianne (a quantum physicist) and Roland (a beekeeper) meet, fall in love (or don’t), and stay together or break up (do they?) As Marianne reassures Roland early on, “Everything we’ve ever, and never, done” already exists in a vast network of “multiverses.” About halfway through the 80-minute play, one wonders if these cosmic auditions may just be Marianne’s daydreams, or Roland’s fears. Are these the tapes we replay, where we say what we wish we had said? Our recriminations, and our lies?
In early 2015, Ruth Wilson and Jake Gyllenhaal made their Broadway debuts in the play. Two years later, Marianne and Roland are beautifully portrayed by Ginnifer Goodwin and Allen Leech, in whose presence the 80 minutes of CONSTELLATIONS—written by Nick Payne and directed by Giovanna Sardelli—fly by much too quickly.
CONSTELLATIONS, through July 16.
GEFFEN PLAYHOUSE, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Westwood, Los Angeles.
Allen Leech and Ginnifer Goodwin in Constellations, by Nick Payne, 2017. Photograph by Chris Whitaker