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Theatre in Review: Hot Mess (Jerry Orbach Theater at the Theater Center)

Lucy DeVito, Max Crumm. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Hot Mess is a foolish, mild little concoction -- really, a stand-up routine disguised as a play -- that asks the question, When a guy gets serious about a girl, should he confess his bisexual (read: homosexual) past? It's a poser, I admit, one that may be more appropriate for the Dear Sugar column than the stage. Maybe the Public Theater could send Nia Vardalos uptown one night to the Jerry Orbach, where she could stage an intervention and clear the matter up.

The lead characters in Hot Mess are named Max and Elanor -- both are comics -- and they are little more than stand-ins for the authors, Dan Rothenberg and Colleen Crabtree, whose story this is. (If you google Rothenberg, you can find a 1998 interview, from the San Francisco Examiner, about his "way out there" approach to being gay. By 2001, he was married to Crabtree. They have a son.) It's an unusual story, to say the least -- I wouldn't expect too much interest from the LGBTQ sector -- and it would be interesting to see if a playwright could make a strong case for it. (For the record, Paddy Chayefsky wrote The Latent Heterosexual, in which a gay man marries a woman for tax purposes and decides he likes it; it was done in Dallas and the United King, but never seen on Broadway as the per the author's instructions.)

Hot Mess, however, has three big problems afflicting it. Elanor is supposed to be working on an "Andy Kaufmanesque" routine that mines the darkness of her family life, which includes four suicides among her relatives in four years. Also, she says, "A grandma was raped by her uncle then sold into marriage to an abusive onion farmer who fell to his death kinda thing. See, there's three ways to die in my family: alcoholism by staircase, bathtub electrocution or natural causes...in a tractor accident." Her mother, she adds, "dumped all this on me when I was five...which is a good age to let a child know that life is terrifying, and we are all alone in the world. On top of that, she accidently left me on a train when I was six and the police were involved, whatever. So, I developed these episodes where I would crash."

Trouble is, the perky Elanor we see -- even her name is cute! -- in no way reflects the multiple traumas listed above, which would be enough to send someone with the spiritual hide of a rhino into the rubber room for the rest of his or her born days. Even given a certain skittishness about falling in love, she is little more than a standard romantic comedy leading lady, ready to melt on cue. Lucy DeVito, the daughter of sitcom royalty and a busy working actress, gives the character a considerable transfusion of charm, but there is little that she can do to make her believable.

Similarly, Max, although drawn from life, never makes any sense. "I was never able to find a hook for my act," he says. "I've always just been a mildly clever Jew. Nobody pays to see that. You can meet that at the bar for free, and decide not to fuck it." Actually, given the material in Hot Mess, he may be overestimating his appeal. Once he starts to fall for Elanor, there's an embarrassing moment at the movies when they run into one of his exes, forcing him into all sorts of doubletalk to cover up his past. This is probably the point where Hot Mess jumps the rails, never to return. If we're going to understand Max and his fluid sexuality, we need to hear much more about it. Has he always dated both sexes? He never seems to have been overly attached to any guy -- why not? How do his feelings for men differ from those for women? As presented here, his decision to date women seems arbitrary, like taking up a gluten-free diet. It doesn't help that he and Elanor don't have much chemistry. If I had a boyfriend whose adorable pet name for me was "poopy pants," I'd probably deck him. Max Crumm, best known for his musical theatre appearances, works hard at giving Max some genuine schlumpy charm, but, like his leading lady, he can only do so much with this material.

The action of Hot Mess consists of a series of delaying tactics, in which Max puts off telling Elanor the truth about his past. And when he does, it sets off one of her crashes -- but not to worry, since there is never the slightest doubt that these two will get together. The few laughs the script has to offer belong to Paul Molnar as, among others, Max's best friend, who sees the entire Max-and-Elanor affair as an opportunity to pass the popcorn, and a French waiter who keeps showing up at exactly the wrong moment.

Jonathan Silverstein's direction is, as always, professional, and Tobin Ost's club setting, Matthew Richards' lighting, Bart Fasbender's sound, and Bobby Frederick Tilley's costumes are all fine. This piece was seen in an earlier, rather different, two-character version titled Regretrosexual: The Love Story, and perhaps that worked better. In any case, this Hot Mess is a pretty cold cup of coffee. -- David Barbour

(17 November 2017)

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