Thursday, May 9, 2019

7 (2019-2020): Review: GARY: A SEQUEL TO TITUS ANDRONICUS (seen May 8, 2019)

“Coup de Gross”

Back in 1960, Arthur Kopit subtitled his play Oh, Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad as “A Pseudoclassical Tragifarce in a Bastard French Tradition.” That’s actually a pretty close description of multifaceted playwright/performance artist Taylor Mac’s (Hir) equally absurdist new Broadway play, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, starring Nathan Lane, Kristine Nielsen, and Julie White.

Nathan Lane. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
It’s set in ancient Rome, right after the physical and political carnage wrought in Shakespeare’s early revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus, about the fictional historical figures, Titus, a Roman general, and Tamora, Queen of the Goths. Among its long list of morbid horrors are the rape by Tamora’s sons of Titus’ daughter, Lavinia, after which they lop off her hands and tongue, and the unwitting Tamora’s eating of a pie into which Titus has baked her sons’ flesh and bones.
Nathan Lane, Kristine Nielsen. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
The pseudoclassical part belongs to the aftermath of the Roman coup, during which—because most of the available “maids” were killed—an irresistibly jocular, bewigged and heavily made-up, street clown (he juggles pigeons) named Gary (Lane) gets a maid’s job. His assignment is to assist another maid, the determinedly meanspirited Janice (Nielsen, replacing the injured Andrea Martin), in the disposal of the countless corpses left by the recent turmoil.

We’re thus thrust, when the curtain opens, into a banquet hall cum charnel house (designed by Santo Loquasto and lit by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer) presenting the remarkable sight of piles of dummies representing slaughtered male bodies, some with their sizable genitals exposed. Women and children’s corpses are covered up at the side.

Broad comedy (with “movement” by Bill Irwin) as gross as any you’ll ever encounter in a Broadway theatre follows as Janice teaches Gary—who affects a cockney accent and speaks in cleverly rhymed verse—how to dismember corpses and empty their contents: one vacuum tube is for blood, the other for feces, and be careful not to get them mixed up, especially when suctioning the stuff by plugging a tube into your mouth!
Nathan Lane, Kristine Nielsen. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
This leads to a parade of scatological humor, including a symphony of farts produced when the bodies are pressed to release their gas, sounds further underscored by the Harpo Marx-like horn Gary wears at this waist. Seeing what their jobs entail, Gary can’t resist quipping to Janice, “Ya might not be living your best life.” Mix the tragedy of needless death with the farce of bodily disposal and you get what Kopit called “tragifarce” (although it could as easily be “tragiburlesque”).
Nathan Lane. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
To Janice’s frustration, Gary can’t resist playing with the corpses as if they were puppets, even masturbating one, being attracted to another, and, at one time, getting a face-full of dead guy’s piss for his troubles. Body parts fall off at a touch, heads roll, and guts unspool, all in good, clean fun. So much of the gory hilarity depends on contact with rotting humans we could probably describe it as slapflesh instead of slapstick. If you’re searching for Kopit’s “bastard French tradition” in all this muck, you might start with Grand Guignol.
Kristine Nielsen. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
The point of all this is to show how the working masses are good for nothing more than to clean up the shit of the rich masters who rule in their name. Autocracy is in conflict with democracy, and, while the first thing brought to mind is our current administration, the satire could as easily be directed at any political situation in which an underclass is at the mercy of a self-serving elite. Here and there, a few feminist notes are also struck. But Gary, who thrives on what he claims to be his ingenuity, has a revolutionary streak and wants to replace the recent political coup with an artistic one that will bring everyone together and change the world. As if.
Julie White. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
To achieve his idealistic goal, which Janice initially derides, Gary dreams of elevating himself from clown to emperor’s fool, the kind who offers wisdom and empathy along with laughter. (The word “emperor,” by the way, becomes a running joke whenever Janice keeps insisting it be pronounced “em-POR-or,” or was that “em-por-OR?) These ruminations allow him to perform not just silly behavior but pathos, as well. Eventually, he induces Janice to join him in his dream of creating a spectacular event he calls a “fooling,” priding himself on having invented a “new genre.”

Then, suddenly, climbing out of the body pile is the high-wigged Carol (Julie White), real name Cordelia, surprised to find she’s still alive. She calls herself Carol to avoid confusion with the other Cordelia. Carol’s a midwife whose throat was slit for delivering the black baby born in Shakespeare’s play to Aron and Tamora, and for whose death she can’t stop feeling guilty.

The comedically outrageous bits continue to pile up after Carol’s entrance, including a chorus line of prosthetically well-hung naked dancers for Gary’s fooling (I agree that doesn’t sound quire right). For all director George C. Wolfe’s excellence at creating the kind of zany behavior such a world requires, however, some, like me, may find the post-flatulence laughter flatlining. (Full disclosure: my plus-one laughed throughout.)

Wolfe gives the actors free rein to pull out all the stops and go for yocks with every line delivery and reaction, but even these master farceurs struggle to keep the fun funny for 95 minutes. A few, quiet moments are not enough to distract from the consistently larger-than-life monkeyshines, the cacophony of shouting, and the eternal mugging that takes what we know these actors can do and multiplies it exponentially.

While I didn’t find Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus as hilarious as did many others, it still tops Juliet’s Nurse—the equally ridiculous, play-within-a-play, Romeo and Juliet sequel seen in the Broadway musical Tootsie. No bones about it. Oddly, the play I’m seeing tonight is called Fruiting Bodies. A reference, perhaps, to what happens to those in Gary when its run decomposes?

Booth Theatre
222 W. 45th St., NYC
Through August 4