Inside the walls of AdirondACTS — just four hours from New York City, as a musical number will later reveal — young thespians can spend summers developing their craft among likeminded kids without fear of being ridiculed by those unversed in the dramatic arts. It’s in this land where misfits rule supreme that the sidesplitting and largely improvised mockumentary “Theater Camp” sets its stage.
The humor in directors Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman’s quick-witted crowd-pleaser, which is both mischievously critical and adoring of the microcosm it depicts, derives almost entirely from the self-seriousness that everyone involved displays for their chosen passion. With utmost earnestness, they all worship at the altar of all things showbiz.
Another wondrous season is about to begin at AdirondACTS when its founder Joan (Amy Sedaris) goes into a “Bye, Bye Birdie”–induced coma. But the show must quite certainly go on, and the staff has come together to put it on not just for the sake of the children but also for themselves. From the onset, it’s evident that the adults here, many of whom are former campers, need the attention just as much as their little stars-in-training. That includes Clive (Nathan Lee Graham, “Katy Keene”), who teaches dance, and Gigi (Owen Thiele, Hulu’s “Dollface”), in charge of costumes.
Gordon herself stars as Rebecca-Diane, one of the camp’s instructors with an esoteric edge. Together with her apprehensive best friend since childhood, Amos (Ben Platt), they have taught at AdirondACTS for the last 10 years, waiting for the “right time” to make the jump into performing professionally. An impasse in their relationship will eventually arise.
To honor their leader, this year’s original production, “Joan, Still,” will chronicle her chameleonic life. Only the best among the rising talents will stand a chance to be cast. In Joan’s absence, her son Troy (Jimmy Tatro, “Home Economics”), the poster child for the simpleminded frat bro with delusions of entrepreneurial grandeur, takes control of the camp’s troubled finances, which put this beloved safe haven for outcasts at risk of disappearing.
In the part, Tatro doesn’t stretch too far from the roles he typically plays elsewhere, but Troy serves as a disruptive outsider in the tight-knit community. The moment he steps into the theater kids’ turf, he discovers that whatever he considers cool in the outside world doesn’t cut it here.
The film’s co-writer Noah Galvin (“The Good Doctor”) plays Glenn, the stagehand whose talents have been hiding behind the spotlight he often points at others. His arc from obscurity to showstopper is one of the movie’s most amusingly satisfying payoffs. For his part, Platt gives into the neurotic personality of Amos –early on he gives harsh notes to one of the campers he believes has already been tainted by working on too many sets as a child performer.
But it’s the extraordinary group of young actors who propel “Theater Camp” forward. Standouts include Bailee Bonick as Mackenzie, cast to play Joan in “Joan, Still;” Donovan Colan (“Spirit Halloween”) playing Devon, who has a major secret; Alexander Bello (“And Just Like That…”) as the gifted Sebastian; and even the delightful Alan Kim, of “Minari” fame, in a small part as an aspiring agent. As the heart of the operation, these over-the-top characters remind the jaded grownups and the audience of why spaces like AdirondACTS matter.
That the comedy here took shape spontaneously from the chemistry of the ensemble merits greater appreciation for how well it works from scene to scene. Admirably, not a single “break a leg” joke is in sight in “Theater Camp,” but plenty of references to legends of the stage and screen populate AdirondACTS. Sharply edged beats about working non-union, about the process of preparing for a role, and about the “unethical” nature of fake tears double in hilarity because of the performers’ tender ages.
The humorists behind “Theater Camp” keep the conflicts rather simple and the plot familiar, yet all the zany touches in character development elevate it. However, although the heterosexual male characters are in the minority here, and perhaps because of that, the filmmakers tend to spend a tad too much on time on their dilemmas, even if to satirize them, somewhat misusing the opportunity to completely decenter their experience.
Many of the mile-per-minute quips and hilariously biting remarks in “Theater Camp” will surely enter the collective consciousness once the general public has access to them. And if the film finds success upon release, as it’s likely to do, there may be interest in turning it into a television series to milk it for all its idiosyncratic charm. But as all good things built from irreplicable, in-the-moment magic, it may be best to keep it a one-night only event.
“Theater Camp” makes its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.