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Theatre in Review: A Commercial Jingle for Regina Comet (DR2 Theatre)

Ben Fankhauser, Bryonha Marie Parham, Alex Wyse. Photo: Matthew Murphy

As we were reminded approximately every 45 seconds on Sunday night, Broadway is back. Off Broadway is back, too, and one sure sign of it is the reappearance of airheaded intimate musicals. The title character of this three-person frolic is a washed-up pop star who, trying to stay in the spotlight, is hawking a new fragrance pointedly titled Relevance. What kind of star is/was Regina Comet? What kind of music did she sing? It's unclear, strongly defined characters not being high on the agenda of the show's creators. Among other things.

To successfully launch Relevance, it is decided that a catchy jingle is needed, so Regina contacts two aspiring, if unsuccessful, songwriters. Because the script refers to them as Man 2 and Other Man (get it?), and they are played by Ben Fankhauser and Alex Wyse -- also, the show's writers/composers -- I will refer to them by their last names. (I do so in the interests of clarity, another quality not highly prized in this entertainment.) The appearance of a pop goddess -- even one whose star has dimmed to the fade-out point -- sends these two nobodies into a fanboy tizzy, driving them to all sorts of bickering and backstabbing.

If A Commercial Jingle for Regina Comet had even a nodding acquaintance with reality, there might be some amusement in the premise of a has-been tangling with desperate wannabes. But the show unfolds in a Cloud Cuckoo-Land version of show business. For one thing, why is no advertising agency involved? Does Regina, who is planning a major arena tour, have any managers or staff? Why would she choose such obscure collaborators? (The ostensible reason is budgetary restrictions, but still.) The product launch is part of a plan for Regina to "connect with consumers aged fourteen to eighteen," a dubious prospect at best, as is her long-deferred dream to be -- wait for it -- an astrophysicist.

That last bit is typical of the show's methodology, apparently based on the notion that the least likely punch line is automatically the funniest. Other ideas are worked to death, the most glaring being a tasteless running gag about Regina having serially deflowered the members of Hanson. That such sexual voracity has nothing to do with the character onstage is another of the script's many continuity problems.

The show begins promisingly, with the song "Again," in which Regina laments her past-her-prime status. ("I'm dimly lit onstage/My people change my age/And fabricate my Wiki page again.") And what's not to love about Fankhauser's flights of nostalgia about happy childhood days at Camp Rosenblatt? ("All those Jewish-leaning children taking breaks from their non-competitive sports just to enjoy our poignant, yet haunting, Shabbat musicals.") But these are exceptions; most of the time, the comedy has no solid foundation, no consistent point of view. The script provides little sense of Fankhauser and Wyse's relationship, so their instantaneous falling out doesn't seem to matter. They launch equally implausible schemes, with Fankhauser offering to install himself as Regina's lover and Wyse trying to cut an exclusive business deal with her. Or, as Regina puts it, "So you wanna be partners, huh? Like Cinderella and her little gay mice?"

With the play's action headed nowhere fast, there's little that the director, Marshall Pailet, can do to impose a sense of purpose. But neither does he get strong work from his cast, all of whom have been seen to better advantage elsewhere. Fankhauser and Wyse are hemmed in by their thin characters: The former is nerdy, Jewish, and straight and the latter is nerdy, Jewish, and gay. (Wyse is also obsessed with his grandmother, a successful writer; it's an idea that mystifies rather than amuses.) Regina is a lost opportunity to spoof divas ranging from Tina to Whitney to Doja Cat. But she is so vaguely imagined that it takes all of Bryonha Marie Parham's considerable charm to make the character tolerable.

The design has some witty touches: Wilson Chin's set, a home office covered in layers of manuscript pages and Post-it notes, is inventively lit by Aja M. Jackson, who also provides a modest wall of light for the rock concert finale. Sarita Fellows' costumes are all right, although one wonders if Parham must spend the entire evening in that unflattering tracksuit. Twi McCallum's sound design is notably crisp and clear. But this is an underwhelming piece, lost in a world of its own; what A Commercial Jingle for Regina Comet could really use is a nice big spritz of Relevance. --David Barbour

(28 September 2021)

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