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Theatre in Review: To My Girls (Second Stage/Tony Kiser Theater)

Britton Smith, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Maulik Pancholy

Ever since Mart Crowley threw that bash for the boys in the band, playwrights have been using social gatherings for status reports on a certain slice of the gay community. I privately file them all under the omnibus title of "six-guys-in-a-beach-house plays," although, in truth, they can take place in Manhattan (Party, The Last Sunday in June), upstate New York (Love! Valour! Compassion!), London (My Night with Reg), and, yes, even a Fire Island bungalow (End of the World Party). They range from searing to transcendent to deeply frivolous, but they all rake over the same themes: friendship versus passion, fidelity versus promiscuity, and the struggle for self-acceptance.

To My Girls, the 2022 edition, does have its innovations, including its setting (an Air BnB rental in Palm Springs), a diverse cast of characters, and up-to-date references to SoulCycle, Xavier Dolan, and The Real Housewives of Atlanta. White privilege gets called out, as often happens these days. And the requisite half-naked young hunk isn't the usual dumb bunny; this time, he is markedly un-neurotic and mature beyond his years. Otherwise, it's business as usual, with occasional feints at seriousness deflected by random wisecracks about Taylor Swift, Kellyanne Conway, and Instagram. Laughs are guaranteed, but it's a little surprising to see Second Stage putting its resources into such a routine genre piece.

The occasion is a weekend reunion of five longtime friends in their late thirties; previously Manhattanites, they are now split between coasts. The boyishly handsome Curtis, a master manipulator panicked about the onset of the dreaded four-oh, is desperate to keep the party going. He is locked into an unhealthy emotional dependency with Castor, who can't get a date and feels trapped in a wisecracking-best-friend role. Flying in from New York is Leo, who is Black and armed with a few home truths about his friends' dysfunctions and casual racism. (Two more guests, a squabbling couple, are mysteriously delayed, for reasons revealed in a lame eleventh-hour plot twist.) Representing the AIDS era is Bernie, owner of the guest house, whose surprise political inclinations cue a barrage of horrified reactions. Speaking up for Gen Z is Omar -- sporting crop-top T-shirts that reveal his astonishingly defined abs -- who gets dragged into the ongoing Curtis -- Castor drama.

The plan, notes Leo, "is to get fucked up! To swim, to dance, to drink, to body-shame. To fight over which Britney album is the best." And, under the typically deft direction of Stephen Brackett, the gags land with remarkable consistency, at least initially. Sizing up the guest house's aggressively overdecorated interior -- a riot of clashing patterns designed by Arnulfo Maldonado -- Castor says, "I am very into the whole Jonathan Adler aesthetic of Palm Springs." When Curtis asks, "Do you want a margarita?" Castor snaps, "What kind of homophobic question is that?" Incidentally, Curtis' cocktail-making style -- nine parts liquor to one part mixer -- gets a big laugh, as does Leo's habit of twisting himself into a pretzel in search of the right selfie pose.

But To My Girls can coast on such antics for only so long, and, after a while, the fun turns sour and sitcomish. Eyeing Bernie in drag, Castor complains, "When you said we were doing Pussycat Dolls, I didn't realize Garfield would be invited to join." Some bits are blatantly unbelievable: Following an argument, Castor flees the house, nearly naked, only to return the next day in a bizarre outfit bought, in a moment of desperation, from a fetish shop. A remarkably tasteless joke about Cher and Chernobyl has one wondering if the characters, or their author, has read the paper lately.

Then again, do these airheads ever read a book? Do they have careers? (Castor is a frustrated writer who toils as a shift supervisor in a coffee joint, so there's that.) Do they have any interests aside from drinking and getting laid? Hard to tell. When it does gets down to weightier matters, To My Girls occasionally has something to say. The Castor -- Omar encounter makes insightful points about the differences between generations. Leo has an engaging monologue about the challenges of being gay and Black. Castor wraps up the action with an eloquent speech about friendship that is the play's most obvious bid to achieve a Terrence McNally level of lyricism.

And yet, all these years and dozens of such plays later, the characters are still picking at the scabs of narcissism and self-hatred. As Leo says, "I do think a fuck ton of gay men use sexual liberation as a stand-in for behaving like selfish boys well beyond their sell-by date." Lonely Castor, who is Asian-American, bitterly notes that "any non-white gay without a six pack and ten thousand followers might as well be invisible in this pathetic circus we call a community." Yet To My Girls has little interest in going too deep; Lee clearly wants nothing to prevent an upbeat finale, with the cast in drag, lip-synching to The Pointer Sisters' "Jump."

The cast follows the playwright's lead, skating lightly over their characters' sorrows. As the aging boy-man Curtis, Jay Armstrong Johnson is a charming trainwreck, recklessly creating emotional chaos for which he apologizes in a high, childish whine. Maulik Pancholy's Castor kvetches in high style, touchingly dropping his brassy manner to recall his first tentative steps out of the closet. Britton Smith's Leo is the play's official voice of reason, warning the others that it's time to grow up. It's great to see Bryan Batt in a substantial role again, as Bernie, who tells the others, not inaccurately, "The remarkable thing about your generation is your insistence everyone be accepting of all people up until you disagree." Noah J. Ricketts brings considerable presence and solid timing to Omar, who is much savvier than his elders. Carman Lacivita is solid as a late arrival who shakes up the action with a ludicrously bloody and unfunny bit of business.

In addition to Maldonado's slyly amusing set, with its overbearing chandeliers and massive curved sofa (accessorized with embroidered "Xanax" and "Prozac" pillows), Sarafina Bush's costumes, ranging from flowing caftans to the skimpiest underwear, are often wickedly entertaining. Jen Schriever's lighting fills the stage with California sunshine. Sinan Refik Zafar's sound design includes a lively mixtape of current pop divas, prominently led by Britney Spears' "Toxic."

I guess every generation of gay audiences deserves its own self-portrait and To My Girls hits enough of the right surface notes to make an amusing night out for the members of its target audience; others may wonder if these characters are worth their time and attention. In some ways, the biggest grievance shared by Curtis, Castor, et al is that they have so little to complain about -- and still they approach middle age in a state of arrested development. As Bernie testily notes, "You spend all this time fighting and intellectualizing about things that don't matter because you're terrified that underneath it all, none of you has anything important to say." I'm afraid that's one charge that sticks. --David Barbour

(13 April 2022)

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