Saturday, June 22, 2019

35 (2019-2020): Review: A STRANGE LOOP (seen June 20, 2019)

“Identity Heft”

A Strange Loop, a new, raucously profane, satirical, Off-Broadway musical comedy at Playwrights Horizons, is a sometimes painful, sometimes joyous, and sometimes comic cry of angst about a fat, black, gay man writing a musical comedy about a fat, black, gay man writing a musical comedy about being a fat, black, gay man writing a musical comedy, etc.
James Jackson, Jr., John-Michael Lyles, Jason Veasey, Larry Owens (in red jacket and hat), Antwayn Hopper, John-Andrew Morrison, L Morgan Lee. Photo: Joan Marcus.
In its metatheatrical way, its self-involved main character, the nearly 26-year-old Usher (the exceptional Larry Owens, and no, not that Usher), resembles photos of Michael R. Jackson (no, not that Michael Jackson), who wrote the book, lyrics, and music. He says in his program note that the work “is not formally autobiographical” while confessing to having thoughts similar to Usher’s while writing it.
Antwayn Hopper, Larry Owens (in front). Photo: Joan Marcus.
He also notes how often his name has confused others about his identity; the same is true of his appearance, which has led people (black and white) to confuse him with the playwright/director Robert O’Hara. This, he says, has only further encouraged his preoccupation with establishing his own identity. And identity is at the heart of A Strange Loop, a show that, as Usher explains, takes its title from Douglas Hofstadter’s cognitive science term:

It’s basically about how your sense of self is just a set of meaningless symbols in your brain pushing up or down through one level of abstraction to another but always winding up right back where they started? It’s the idea that your ability to conceive of yourself as an ‘I’ is kind of an illusion? But the fact that you can recognize the illusion kind of proves that it exists kind of?

Get it? Whatever.

John-Andrew Morrison, James Jackson, Jr., John-Michael Lyles, L Morgan Lee, Antwayn Hopper, Jason Veasey. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Like the paintings of M.C. Escher, the narrative (and some of the music) keeps looping back on itself. But the term also refers to a song by Liz Phair, whose lyrics aren’t particularly loopy. The latter connection seems more attuned to Usher’s preoccupation with his “inner white girl,” that is, the undue influence on his own music of that by white-girl singer-song writers like Phair, Joni Mitchell, and Tori Amos because of the freedom these artists represent as opposed to his own hang-ups as a gay, black boy in thrall to his mother.
L Morgan Lee, James Jackson, Jr., Jason Veasey, Larry Owens (plaid shirt), Antwayn Hopper, John-Michael Lyles. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Usher, a red-tunicked usher at Disney’s The Lion King—frequently alluded to when names like Mufasa, Nala, Rafiki, Sarabi, and Scar are attributed to his family members—is a Detroit-raised songwriter living in New York with a bigtime student debt. He’s struggling to create a “big, black and queer-ass Broadway show” that avoids the compromises a black artist, who wants to write something “unapologetically black” has to make to appeal to white audiences, critics, and backers.
L Morgan Lee, John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, Larry Owens (plaid shirt), Antwayn Hopper, Jason Veasey, James Jackson, Jr. Photo: Joan Marcus.
At one point, he’ll be forced by necessity to compromise when he’s asked to ghostwrite a gospel opera on behalf of moviemaker Tyler Perry, whose work his family adores (because he writes about “real life”), but which Usher despises as “crap” and “hack buffoonery.” Much of the show’s humor comes from how certain characters in Usher’s life parody the broadly stereotypical Tyler style.

Usher feels worthless because, while “starved for black affirmation and affection,” he’s unable to find a suitable black partner, his hookups mainly being white, like the meth-using Inwood guy who does it to him from behind. It’s a raunchy scene reminiscent of a much funnier one in Torch Song Trilogy.
John-Andrew Morrison, Larry Owens. Photo: Joan Marcus.
He suffers from the towering guilt of having been raised by God-fearing people (including his scripture-spouting mother), who reject his “homosexsh’alities,” worry over his sinful life, and reject his artistic aspirations. He also can’t avoid reminders of a friend who died of AIDS and ponders if he can possibly change or is just “stuck with who I am.”
John-Andrew Morrison, L Morgan Lee, John-Michael Lyles, Jason Veasey, Larry Owens (plaid shirt), Antwayn Hopper, James Jackson, Jr. Photo: Joan Marcus.
A Strange Loop explores his anxieties in what the script calls “daily self-loathings” by representing them as an ensemble of six singing, dancing, and acting Thoughts. These are performed by the ultra-versatile L. Morgan Lee (the only female), James Jackson, Jr., John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, Jason Veasey, and Antwayn Hopper. It’s hard not to feel that the play is a therapeutic exercise designed to exorcize Jackson’s demons.
James Jackson, Jr., Larry Owens, L Morgan Lee, Antwayn Hopper. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Each—helped by Montana Levi Blanco’s many costumes—takes on two or more caricaturish roles, including Usher’s pious mother and alcoholic father, an imaginary Mr. Right he meets on the subway, a doctor, an agent, and a lover. There are also fanciful appearances by such black luminaries as Harriet Tubman, Carter G. Woodson, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, and others, even “Twelve Years a Slave.”
Jason Veasey, Larry Owens. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Usher and his Thoughts sing and dance his problems in a highly theatricalized format creatively staged by Stephen Brackett and vividly choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly. Arnulfo Maldonado’s set, flashily lit by Jen Schriever, makes use of door-sized, neon-outlined cubicles that are either placed upstage next to one another or sent to opposite sides of the stage.

Toward the end there’s a surprising, if not absolutely necessary, scenic shift to Usher’s parents’ more naturalistic, overcrowded home, with a church setting directly overhead. Usher now takes on the role of a fiery pastor (of the Quasi-Africana Church of God in Christ), castigating gays by declaring AIDS to be God’s punishment for their transgressions.

The music is heavily rhythmic; the lyrics emotionally expressive, didactically inclined, and narratively thin; the language often filthy (anal sex and fellatio, less delicately expressed, get the lion’s share); the “n-words” and “fag” references endemic; and the familiar African-American allusions (like Popeye’s chicken) common.

A Strange Loop is highly polished, and the multitalented Larry Owens makes a splashy New York debut in a tour-de-force performance. Because of its treatment of black, gay identity, it’s the kind of play that will provoke reams of socio-political discussion by those more qualified to discuss it than I.
L Morgan Lee, John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, Larry Owens (plaid shirt), Antwayn Hopper (behind him), Jason Veasey, James Jackson, Jr. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Regardless of how well directed, designed, and performed A Strange Loop is, or how often it inserts woke references (like vers bottom, intersectionality, code-switching, second-wave feminism, and so forth), the troubles of its solipsistic hero lack the stamina to keep one in the loop for an uninterrupted interest over an hour and 45 minutes.

Playwrights Horizons
416 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through July 28