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Theatre in Review: Mister Miss America (All for One Theatre at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre)

Neil D'Astolfo. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

I never knew it, but apparently Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre contains one of those mysterious portals that transport one to the distant past. How else to explain the building's summer tenant? On the surface, Mister Miss America is an up-to-date entertainment packed with references to current It Girls like Taylor Swift, Mandy Moore, Demi Lovato, Kerry Washington, and especially Patti LuPone. In reality, its heart belongs to another decade. A solo show pitched at gay audiences looking for frivolous fun and affirmation, it is, in style and subject matter, like something out of the 1990s. Or '80s. Or maybe the '70s. It is entirely harmless, but humor has a short shelf life and much of what is on offer here has long passed its sell-by date.

In any year, the premise would be flagrantly implausible. Neil D'Astolfo, who wrote and stars, would have you believe that Derek Tyler Taylor, assistant manager at a Petco store, has managed to elbow his way into the Miss Southwestern Virginia Pageant, competing as Mister Miss Smithsville against a brace of big-haired, magnolia-scented belles. D'Astolfo would also have you believe Derek could end up in the top five, then the top three, seriously competing for the crown, despite audience catcalls and abuse from his fellow contestants. By then, Mister Miss America has entered an alternate universe in which Derek's ambitions don't call down outraged tweetstorms, Family Research Council protests, and hysterical Tucker Carlson rants about America's collective loss of testosterone.

And, anyway, do beauty pageants still matter to gay guys in their twenties? Time was when friends got together with snacks and cocktails to hoot and holler at the Miss America competition -- I know this from personal experience -- but the Ronald Reagan administration was a long time ago. For that matter, do young ladies from the South still totter around in swimsuits, tiaras, and high heels, answering stupid questions about the most inspirational person in their lives? Do young queer people, with their focus on all things nonbinary, really care about such artificial rites? Wouldn't they see them problematic statements of heteronormative supremacy or some such thing?

Well, it's a conceit, and if you don't mind a show that treats yesterday's camp rituals as the soul of up-to-date hilarity, you might have a good time at Mister Miss America. Then again, D'Astolfo, a gifted, charismatic performer, is a self-indulgent writer, spinning webs of free association delivered in a regional dialect as thick as molasses cornbread. Chew on this sample:

"So, since y'all are the newest chickadees in this here hen house, let this ol' mama bird tell y'all how this work. We got three segments: Swimsuit, Talent and then Question and Answer. Now, they let all us girls compete in Swimsuit (I wonder why) before they cut it down to a Top Five for Talent, then down to three for Q&A, and then one stunnin', shimmerin', shinin' star walks off with that timeless Sarkovski [sic] crystal crown."

Then there's this comment: "The Swimsuit Portion is all about who has the nicest body -- which, in my case, is a bit like comparin' apples to banaynays, you know?" Or this: "But, y'all, this pageant's rules were made 86 years ago. Would you wear a bra from 86 years ago? No go, Flo Jo! As someone who used to sneak-wear their mawmaw's old boulder holder, I can tell y'all: that thing was heavy and sharp and did more to suppress than support." After just a smidgen of this, I was plumb tired, honey lamb.

When director Tony Speciale gets D'Astolfo to tone it down a bit, the laughs start to come. Derek's explanation of the spelling of his chief rival's name ("Kimberleigh") is priceless, as is his awareness that his first-grade teacher's comment ("Derek is a very 'special' boy) "actually meant, 'Derek only answers to the name "Faith Hill" and spends recess talkin' to the lunch ladies about Desperate Housewives." An account of a wayward bus trip to New York to see LuPone in Gypsy, climaxing in an encounter with the star, is a lovely piece of stand-alone writing.

But when we get to the talent portion of the competition, D'Astolfo has Derek offer a pale imitation of John Epperson's Lypsinka routine, a psychodramatic mashup of bits that includes Faye Dunaway as a wire-hanger-wielding Joan Crawford; Lea Michele offering a weepy Spring Awakening ballad, and LuPone tearing into an unmasked audience member at Company. It's a hodgepodge that compares poorly to Epperson's brilliantly constructed audio collages. Later, after the winner is announced, he presents an entirely redundant encore. By then Mister Miss America seems to be marking time, looking for a finale.

The writer/star is lucky in his design team, who contribute a great deal to the show's amusement factor. Se Hyun Oh's backstage set, framed by an upstage proscenium, is an ideal playing space, especially when punched up with ballyhoos, accent lighting, and other effects by Travis McHale. Hunter Kaczorowski's witty costumes include a sleek sapphire-colored tux adorned with stars; a beach ensemble that includes a striped, tasseled bathing suit and the mother of all picture hats; and a perfect recreation of LuPone's "Rose's Turn" frock. Sun Hee Kil's slyly amusing sound design includes a swelling pageant theme, applause, show announcements, and, of course, extensive lip-synching sequences.

Watching Mister Miss America, I was reminded more than once of Pageant, the all-male musical spoof that regaled audiences in 1991--92. But that was then, and this is now. Anyway, D'Astolfo, bless his heart, provides a bit of Southern Comfort to audiences nostalgic for the good times of yesteryear. Whatever one thinks of this show, he is a definite talent, even if he hasn't found the right material. Surely, he has some brashly funny observations to offer about gay life in 2022. At one point, Derek notes that his motto is "WWPD," as in "What would Patti do?" Well, for one thing, she would move with the times. --David Barbour

(13 July 2022)

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