Two out-of-work actors hold court in front of the stage door of the Richard Rodgers Theatre to pontificate about Broadway divas. They’re on first-name basis with Bernadette and Audra and Patti while they wait for Idina to emerge from a performance of “If/Then” in the year 2015. Their big worry is whether or not the star of that soon-to-be-a-cult musical will make time to give them her autograph.
Either you have already stopped reading this review or you’re on line to buy tickets to Ana Nogueira’s fabulous new comedy, “Which Way to the Stage,” which opened Tuesday at the MCC Theater.
Judy and Jeff are the two autograph hounds, and as played by Sas Goldberg and Max Jenkins, they’re not only ready to take their act on the road, they’re bound to play the Richard Rodgers Theatre any day now. Goldberg is the staccato splashing around in Jenkins’ glissando, and together they deliver an hysterically funny duet.
Nogueira knows of what she writes, although her background doesn’t begin to suggest the awesome overload of theater lore, opinion and trivia unleashed by Judy and Jeff in their opening sidewalk discourse. As an actor, Nogueira has a few Off Broadway credits on her résumé, along with stints on TV’s “The Vampire Diaries” and “Hightown,” and she made her New York stage debut as a playwright in 2016 with “Empathitrax” at Colt Coeur. “Which Way to the Stage” is her follow-up, and boy, what a winning sophomore effort it is! She writes like Paul Rudnick as edited by Lypsinka — with one big and startling difference, which this review will get to later.
While Judy has a day job as a real estate agent, Jeff continues to hone his cabaret act of playing Barbra Streisand in “Yentl.”
Nogueira never gives Jeff a chance to show us his Babs in male drag, but she does give us his Idina Menzel in black leather pants a la “Rent,” which he, of course, drops. (The great and varied costumes are by Enver Chakartash.) As drag acts go, it is a “stunner” that explores every last definition of that word. By the time Judy gets her first look at Jeff’s new drag act, she has already met and started dating Mark (Evan Todd), a very handsome fugitive from Wall Street who has decided to follow his heart and return to the theater to audition for a role in a production of “Avenue Q” that is going to play in Maine sometime during the summer.
Jeff also meets Mark, and the inevitable “Is he or isn’t he?” debate ensues. That plot proceeds as expected with Mark’s performance in life more perfectly honed than even Jeff’s cabaret act. Todd brings plenty of charm to this Untuckit character, suggesting that Mark may not be as much a bad guy as Jeff (and maybe Nogueira?) thinks he is.
The big surprise is Judy’s reaction to Idina Menzel as run through the psyche of Jeff. This is where Nogueira departs radically from the gay-male pack of writers on the subject of drag.
The playwright presumably read Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” at an impressionable age and quickly followed it by memorizing both James McCourt’s “Mawrdew Czgowchwz” and Wayne Kostenbaum’s “The Queen’s Throat.” Nogueira knows her stuff and adds more than a few new wrinkles to camp idols and the wigs they wear. This new debate between Judy and Jeff is a lot less funny than their Broadway-trivia battles, but proves even more riveting.
Nogueira gives her two characters more than enough information on closet politics and male dominance to detonate the other’s opinion. Surprisingly, their argument veers into one subject that is so old it’s new again. Back in 1966, the New York Times published an infamous essay, by Stanley Kauffmann, titled “Homosexual Drama and Its Disguises.” Without naming names, the critic lambasted Tennessee Williams, William Inge and Edward Albee – or, as he put it, “three of the most successful American playwrights” — for writing works that presented “a badly distorted picture of American women, marriage, and society in general.” The essay’s clear subtext was that Williams was really Blanche, Albee was really Martha, and Inge was really Lola. Or was it Cherie? All these female characters are distortions of womanhood because they’re really gay men in drag. Or so Kauffmann suggested.
Jeff doesn’t mention the arch-conservative critic or that terrible Times essay in his showdown with Judy. Their knowledge of Broadway doesn’t go that far back. Albee & Co. spent their careers denying Kauffmann’s subtext. Suffice to say, Jeff embraces it wholeheartedly in his defense of what he cares most about in life.
Mike Donahue directs “Which Way to the Stage.” He has the advantage of bringing to the stage a comedy that’s funny because its laughs are grounded in reality, unlike “POTUS” over at the Shubert Theatre, which has the U.S. president’s staff working hard to cover up the crime of a White House reporter. A reporter?! On what planet was that farce written? Under Donahue’s direction, the most theatrical gestures and lines are delivered as not second but first nature to these characters. Especially fun are the multiple roles played by Michelle Veintimilla, who does to bachelorettes who slum at gay bars what ought to be done to bachelorettes who slum at gay bars.
That cabaret set, as well as the sidewalk outside the Rodgers Theatre, are designed by Adam Rigg. His are the first scenic designs to take full advantage of the super-wide space of the new Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space.
It doesn’t mean much to say that “Which Way to the Stage” is the best new comedy of the current theater season, which started last week. Let’s go further and call this the best new comedy in New York City since the theaters reopened last autumn.