Sunday, November 29, 2009

Theater Review: The Gayest Christmas Pageant Ever!

It has long been my opinion that a critic should strive to be balanced when it comes to the plays he criticizes. After all, even the worst productions tend to be made with good intentions. Even the worst productions tend to be made by people who want to be proud of their participation. And even the worst productions tend to be made with the idea of entertaining or enlightening their audiences in some way. That’s why it is so hard for me to write this review – because, well-intentioned though The Gayest Christmas Pageant Ever! may be, it really is one of the worst productions I have ever seen on a New York stage. The play, which was written, produced, and sound designed by Joe Marshall under the banner of the Alternative Theatre Company (which appears to go wherever Marshall goes, having originated in Phoenix, AZ, moved to Tucson, and recently relocated to New York), is a misbegotten effort from beginning to end. Plays can function and generate laughs even when their plots make no sense. They can make a point even when the characters are two-dimensional. They can survive poor direction, poor performances, and the occasional bad joke. But when one play features all of the above, it truly takes a Christmas miracle to turn tinsel into silver and gold, and the only miracle I witnessed at The Actor’s Playhouse was that the audience, by and large, returned to their seats after intermission.

The plot, such as it is, is based on a decent, or at least amusing, premise. In West Hollywood, producers Manny (Adam Weinstock) and Don (Blaine Pennington), founders of a theater company, are desperate to mount a money-making play after presenting a series of flops written and directed by Rod (played as a screeching sack of stereotypes by Jason B. Schmidt), their co-founder and Manny’s lover. Over Rod’s hurt objections, they hire creepy gay playwright M&M (Chris von Hoffman) to replace him as author of their yearly Christmas pageant, but are forced to use Rod’s script when M&M storms out in a rage, for predictably ridiculous reasons. Luckily for them, Rod’s script is not terrible – but, realizing that he will become insufferable if they admit that to him, they change the title and attempt to keep him away from the production.

Complicating their plan is the rest of the theater’s staff, including the "sassy" costume designer, Tarquin (Jonathan Chang); one-man-stage-crew (and perpetually stoned heterosexual) Jim (Ryan Wright); and Janet (Elyse Beyer), their reasonably competent but extremely high-strung stage manager. After Rod is conveniently sidelined by a falling stage light Jim incompetently rigged, they hire Margie (Crystal Cotton), a successful director from New York who knows Manny and Rod from The Old Days.

What follows are a series of excruciatingly tasteless jokes featuring a snow-excreting Santa Claus; a flatulent and deaf accompanist (Ree Davis); and Jim’s narcoleptic, Tourette’s afflicted bigot of a mother (Emily Schramel), whose apparent sole purpose is to give the author the chance to use the expression “darkie” in his script. Later, the cast of characters is joined by Jesus – yes, that Jesus – who, like Harvey the Rabbit, is only seen by Jim, and who proudly proclaims his own homosexuality and Latino pride (because, after all, what’s more of a laugh than the fact that there are Latinos named Jesus?).

Of course, in the tradition of Noises Off, everything that can go wrong with the production does. The cast is terrible. The crew is incompetent. And everyone keeps having to deal with Tyrone, the angry black guy who left his gun at the audition (played by a game Kershel Anthony).

This sounds like it could be a South Park-esque, irreverent, so-offensive-it’s-funny, celebration of poor taste, and at times it seems clear that that is Joe Marshall’s intention. Unfortunately, the jokes are not simply tasteless – they’re also completely unfunny. Jokes that didn’t land the first time are stretched into recurring gags. For example, Marshall tries to generate laughs by revealing the titles of two of Rod’s previous plays, (one being “Oklahomo”) and then, as the show goes on, continues the gag – by referring to the same two plays. Repeatedly. He couldn’t have come up with a few more puns? When things threaten to slow down, Marshall finds an excuse to bring back his unfunny bigot, his flamboyant Jesus, or his thuggish black man to act out some desperate stereotype or another, despite the fact that they don’t ever advance the action in any significant way. And, to further demonstrate his sophistication, the author has no trouble using stoner material that was dated back in the days of Cheech and Chong.

Meanwhile, the plot is not merely convoluted, but incoherent. For one thing, the playwright, for all of his supposed theatrical experience, seems to lack a working knowledge of how the theater business works, or simply thinks the audience won’t notice or care about the glaring incongruities. How has the theater company survived all this time? Do the founders have regular jobs? If they’re a legitimate company, why is the cast and crew made up of amateurs? And if they’re simply a community theater, why are they getting reviewed in major newspapers? If the play moved faster (or had more competent actors), these questions would be irrelevant, but Marshall feels the need to cram in social messages and romantic subplots at random moments, giving the audience just enough time to realize that none of what they’re seeing makes the least bit of sense.

As the second act opens, it seems for a moment that The Gayest Christmas Pageant Ever! is finding its purpose. When we see the problematic rehearsal for the play-within-the-play, there are some genuinely funny moments. However, things are quickly derailed again when Marshall insists on generating false tension by revealing Janet’s hitherto-unseen (and quickly handwaved-away) homophobia. After an incredibly out-of-place series of coming-out vignettes and a speech from Jim about tolerance, opening night arrives – and we’re treated to, basically, the same gags from the rehearsal scene, plus the aforementioned “Shitting Santa.” Predictably, the characters are heartbroken by their terrible review – and overjoyed when the terrible review leads to a sold-out run. If Marshall was trying to go for “Springtime For Hitler,” he should have realized that sending up bad plays acted by bad actors only works in a good play featuring good actors. Later, in a truly bizarre postscript, the heterosexual love interests (who, to Marshall’s credit, were developed with more nuance and compassion than any of the stock-stereotype gay male characters), are magically turned into a gay couple. For what purpose? Apparently only Jesus knows – and he doesn’t share.

In fairness, there are at least a few decent actors in the play, who deserved better material to work with. Cotton manages to create a believable character out of her worldly lesbian director, and the romantic leads, Wright and Beyer, are amiable if not particularly three-dimensional. In bit parts, Alexandra Dickson, who plays a butch (and put-upon) angel, and Kymberlie Joseph, channeling Hattie McDaniel as Tyrone’s mother, earn actual laughs during their brief appearances. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast struggles with the material, mugging through lines and situations that are already overly broad. Several of the actors seem to be genuine amateurs – Chang might have been funny, but it was hard to tell, since he had trouble projecting in the small space. Weinstock, whose theatrical credits are largely behind-the-scenes, looks and sounds uncomfortable on stage.

If this review seems unnecessarily harsh, it is only because plays like this are offensive at a deeper level than the jokes in them. Earlier, I wrote that most bad theater is made with good intentions, but my guest and I left The Gayest Christmas Pageant Ever! feeling doubtful that this play was mounted for anything other than cynical reasons. Sadly, if the play’s main purpose is to exploit audiences who will be attracted to anything with the word “gay” in the title, it may succeed. In promotional material, the producers quote comedienne Kathy Griffen proclaiming, “The title alone is brilliant!” While Griffin’s quote may be genuine, it’s hard to believe she saw the play before she made that statement. “Brilliant” title or not, the play is as much of a mess as the titular pageant. In a city full of talented playwrights and actors who can’t get a break, it is simply amazing that a show of this caliber can be mounted on an off-Broadway stage. Then again, when the playwright and the producer are one and the same, anything is possible. No matter Marshall’s intentions, he succeeds only in alienating the very audience he is trying to play to.

© 2009, Christopher Stansfield. Some rights reserved. This work is licensed to the public under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License, and may only be distributed according to the terms of said license. To view a copy of this license, please click here.

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