‘Gary’ Broadway Review: Nathan Lane Cleans Up a Big, Bloody and Inspired Mess

The actor scores in Taylor Mac’s demented new comedy, which manages to improve mightily on Shakespeare’s worst play

If a gay mayor from South Bend has a shot at the presidency, then it’s possible for Charles Ludlam to make it to Broadway. Finally.

Way back in the late 20th century, one of the great disappointments was that Ludlam, head of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, passed away before he could stage Shakespeare’s first, bloodiest and worst-written tragedy, “Titus Andronicus,” in Central Park for Joe Papp. The theater gods, however, have taken note and been merciful. In his own uniquely demented way, Taylor Mac gives us a glimpse of what that lost Ludlam production might have looked like with his new play, “Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus,” which, in an act of brave and utter depravity, opened on Easter Sunday at Broadway’s Booth Theatre.

It’s 400 B.C. in Rome, and two minor servant characters from the play, here named Gary (Nathan Lane) and Janice (Kristine Nielsen), are cleaning up yet another bloody mess left there in the very bloody end of “Titus Andonicus.” The new emperor and one of the few survivors of the carnage needs the room for his inauguration banquet.

Santo Loquasto’s set for “Gary” features stacks and stacks of naked corpses, the dead soldiers’ private parts now made very public. Ann Roth’s costumes display very large penises that come to attention even though the men are dead. In other words, director George C. Wolfe makes sure that we wallow in inspired nastiness for a delightful, unrelenting 90 minutes.

Although there’s plenty of blood to be mopped up, Gary and Janice’s major duty is to deflate all the corpses of their bodily gases and empty them of any remaining blood, urine and feces. Janice is the pro here, Gary the novice, and Nielsen’s adeptness at massaging the corpses (sound design by Dan Moses Schreier) and inserting tubes into them is not only horrifying, it’s absolutely hilarious, thanks to Lane’s deadpan reactions.

“Gary” tells us that most people, in order to survive, must numb themselves to murder, poverty, war and government corruption and lies in the highest public offices — you fill in the appropriate names. Since Gary is new to all this horror, he takes it upon himself to rouse Janice’s dormant conscience. Atrocities happen because worker bees like her keep cleaning up after the nut jobs at the top.

When we first meet Gary, he has recently left his job as a clown on the streets of ancient Rome. Somehow, cleaning up dead people’s blood and poop inspires him. He aspires to be a Fool in the imperial court, and so speaks in verse, much to Janice’s eye-rolling. Fools see the Truth, they can save the world. Or can they, really? Mac’s comedy, among other things, is a bruised valentine to the awesome yet limited power of the theater.

Mac borrows lightly from “Waiting for Godot,” but unlike Samuel Beckett, Mac doesn’t indulge in repetition to the point of tedium. Lane has played this kind of absurdist character before. Here, he even uses Harpo Marx’s horn to goose a laugh; yet, despite all the gags, this clown-turned-worker-turned-Fool is ultimately very poignant in his quest to save the world. Meanwhile, the usually flighty Nielsen has never been more comically stolid. Watching Lane’s gnat of a character pick away at her filth-smeared carcass is theater heaven as viewed from the sewer.

Into this misshapen partnership comes a survivor of the coup. It’s the nurse who had her throat slit by Aaron, the Moor, when Tamora, the former Queen of the Goths and more recently the Roman Empress, gave birth to their mixed-race baby. (I told you this is the worst thing Shakespeare ever wrote.) The nurse was thought to be dead, but she lives in “Gary” because the blood coursing through her throat coagulated just in the nick of time.

Now she’s on a quest to find the pilfered baby — that is, if Saturninus hasn’t already offed the kid. Julie White, as the nurse, actually sounds as if her throat had been sliced open. More amazing, she appears to have stepped out of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” and manages to hold that expression even during the banquet where she’s offered a plate of Tamora’s pie, baked with the heads of her two sons, Demetrius and Chiron. It’s a scene that vastly improves on Shakespeare’s.

As Lane and Nielsen manhandle all those dummy corpses, Mac jerks the audience around, too. His verse often entrances with its beauty, only to have Janice ask the front row, “Does anyone have a mint?” Gary’s lofty reference to Ovid’s “The Metamorphoses” inevitably ends with Carol the nurse voicing regret: “I should do more reading.” We see the design of Mac’s comedy, but the actors and Wolfe’s direction make it part of the spectacle, along with all those erect dicks and very low fart jokes. The imagination at work here is awesome.

If your idea of a great night in the theater is the pious “To Kill a Mockingbird,” then “Gary” is probably a must-avoid. For the rest of us, it’s clear that Charles Ludlam is smiling down on Broadway and laughing his head off this Easter Sunday.