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Theatre in Review: Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus (Booth Theatre)

Caption: Nathan Lane. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

Gary is Broadway's first comedy set in a charnel house. (I admit to having no supporting evidence for this claim, but I feel confident about it nonetheless.) Taylor Mac, the playwright, has indeed envisioned a sequel to Titus Andronicus, and what an idea: The play is, arguably, William Shakespeare's frankest potboiler, a nonstop roundelay of torture and killing, its supposed highlights featuring a young woman being stripped of her tongue and hands, and a banquet where the chief villain unwittingly dines on a pie packed with the flesh of her sons. There have been one or two storied productions of Titus -- a Peter Brook staging, starring Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, is well remembered -- but it is no one's idea of a classic and it turns up only occasionally, when companies have exhausted all the possibilities of Hamlet and As You Like It. According to the Internet Broadway Database, it has never been done on Broadway. And yet this sequel to the bloodiest of revenge tragedies is a clown show - loaded with blackest gags imaginable -- and, in George C. Wolfe's oddly -- you might say bizarrely -- effervescent production, with three brilliant clowns on hand.

If Aristophanes and Seneca had ever teamed up to write a play - yes, I know this would have been temporally impossible - the result might have been something very much like Gary. After a resounding flourish of trumpets and a classical prologue, the curtain rises on Santo Loquasto's set, depicting the banquet hall in which the Act V mayhem of Titus Andronicus was played out; it's a piece of noble Roman architecture packed to the ceiling with dead bodies. (This is one of the designer's most distinctive achievements, a savage cartoon of savagery, simultaneously ghastly and giggle-inducing, and it sets exactly the right tone for the tomfoolery that follows.) This is the day after the events of Shakespeare's play, and it needs must be cleaned up for the inauguration to take place that morning. (Given the general state of slaughter, it's hard to imagine who is left to run Rome.) In charge of the operation is Janice, a harsh-voiced, hatched-faced hag with an imperious attitude and a cockney accent. In the role, Kristine Nielsen at times seemingly channels the late, great Hermione Baddeley although she brings her own distinctive comic spin to these brutal, bloody proceedings. All business, she gives a brisk demonstration of the job, ripping the tunic off a corpse and, pounding various organs, expelling the leftover gas -- and creating her own cockeyed symphony in the process. Armed with a gimlet stare that could stop a stampede of horses, and legitimately worried that if she doesn't get the job done she will be added to the body count, she is a minor-league Mother Courage, determined to keep her head down while telling a reluctant colleague, "Stop your naysayin' and put a pep in your step already."

That colleague would be Gary, in the person of Nathan Lane, outfitted, at first, in white makeup and wig seemingly thieved from the makings of a whisk broom. Gary is the clown who, in Shakespeare's play, is sent off to be hanged by the malevolent Tamora, Queen of the Goths. Having survived his near-death experience, he has developed a philosophical turn of mind: Watching Janice perform her grotesque duties, removing intestines by hand and jump-starting pumps that suck out blood and feces, he avers, "Just seems, if this is the kind of thing ya gotta do on the regular, ya might not be living your best life." Lane's knack at throwing away lines like this has rarely been put to such good use.

Indeed, Gary has acquired a sense of ambition: No longer satisfied with being a clown, he aspires to become a fool, because, he insists, "a fool's ambition is to save the world." He envisions an "artistic" coup, "a sort of theatrical revenge on the Andronicus revenge. A comedy revenge to end all revenge." Dwelling on the format, he struggles to name it: "A sorta folly. No, a spectacle. Or a comedy folly that is a spectacle. Sorta a machination. That's full of laughter. But more than laughs. But with the laughs. Well, sorta a thinking-man's laughter." Janice, fed up, snaps, "Pick one and commit!"

Lane makes Gary into a kindly lost soul, equally eager for recognition and sincere in his desire to save mankind from its homicidal ways. (In one especially priceless moment, he greets the corpse of an acquaintance, shaking its hand, only to have the extremity come loose from its owner.) His natural reticence -except when in a fever of creation -- makes him a perfect companion to Nielsen's growling, grimacing, hammer-and-tongs approach, whether he is describing his career as a pigeon juggler, arguing with Janice about the correct pronunciation of "emperor" (she, being naturally pretentious, stresses the last syllable as far as it can go), or sinking, woefully, out of sight in a mountain of the dead. Theirs is a partnership to remember.

The third side of this comic triangle is Julie White as Carol, the nurse who attended Tamora when she gave birth to the child of her lover, Aaron, the Moor. (As you may recall from your Shakespeare, in an effort at hushing up the scandal, both baby and nurse are dispatched to their doom. This may explain why Carol, presenting the play's prologue, is dismayed to discover fountains of blood spurting from her neck.) Nevertheless, she lives: A professional hysteric and walking case of PTSD - "I prefer quirky," she says - she gets caught in the drama brewing between Gary and Janice regarding what he has taken to calling his "fooling."

Telling the audience, "For life, to the cultured, and to the philistine/Once felt, is craved 'til thrills become routine," White pauses after "philistine," and, with a quick nod, indicates that she knows exactly who among the paying patrons fit that description. Discussing, Titus' climax, she says "What, rapers in a pie ain't surprising?" "Well," Gary replies, "it had happened before, in the Metamorphosis, when Procne fed her son to his rapist father." Defeated, she replies, "I should read more.") Dressed in a blood-stained tunic, and topped with a coiffure that looks like a small Alpine mountain, she endures moments of flashback that sends the others reeling. But don't worry about her: Made imposing by fury, she announces, in a tone that brooks no disagreement, "I'm not tragic. I'm comedic!" The same goes for Julie White.

Gary isn't loaded with action; it is more a collection of comic routines built around the question of the role of the artist in terrible times. As themes go, it's a tad self-serving, and there's no question that Mac's jet-black humor won't be for all tastes. But this is not a dumbed-down work in any way. The jokes may be based on blood and shit and death, but the playwright and his three stars are working a vein of humor that harks back to Athenian Old Comedy, passes through the Globe Theatre, English music halls, and American burlesque houses, and takes in the likes of Samuel Beckett. Mac also purveys his peerlessly witty form of literary criticism as, in this exchange, about Lavinia and Aaron:

Carol: Bit of a racist.

Janice: Lavinia?

Carol: She liked to call black people "raven-colored."

Janice: So it's alright she was violated, her hands and tongue cut off?

Carol: Of course not. But it undercuts the empathy.

Janice: Carol, the rules are, ya gotta feel more empathy for the victim than the man who slit your throat.

And is the use of massacre as a pretext for farce really so outrageous in a world rocked by Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, honor killings, school/synagogue/disco shootings, and the events of 9/11? Mac is right to wonder what the artist can contribute in such circumstances, and if daring to create something out of such terrors isn't indeed its own powerful form of resistance. Most of the time, we live in a world that eerily mirrors the events of Gary; we just don't like to think about it.

In any case, the playwright gets the strongest possible support from his director, George C. Wolfe, who, in addition to handily corralling his three unruly comic talents, has overseen a stunning production design. Loquasto's set is superbly lit by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, who use subtle shifts of color and angle to focus the action, making everything onstage even more vivid. (The wigs, by Campbell Young Associates, are wonders in themselves.) Ann Roth's costumes are marvels of witty detail, especially the gold lame creation (complete with mounds of jewelry) that Janice adopts in a moment of grandeur. The sound design, by Dan Moses Schreier, evokes the glory that was Rome; he also helps to facilitate the finale, which is not to be revealed here.

As you can imagine, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus is one of the more polarizing events of the season: According to its non-fan club, it is too extreme, too grisly, too "downtown" -- whatever that means. I can see the point, but, to my mind, the stage of the Booth glitters with talent, everyone involved in investigating a deadly serious question while calling down one enormous laugh after another. --David Barbour

(30 April 2019)

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