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Theatre in Review: Scotland, PA (Roundabout at Laura Pels Theatre)

Photo: Nina Goodheart.

Scotland, PA, is certainly not the worst musical of the season -- under Lonny Price's direction it is often briskly efficient -- but it may be the most baffling one. Book writer Michael Mitnick and composer/lyricist Adam Gwon had the idea of adapting the 2001 film -- a poorly received indie comedy that did nothing at the box office -- fully embracing a central conceit that seems more random than amusing: As in the film, this new musical transposes the story of Macbeth to a Pennsylvania fast-food joint in 1975. Why, you wonder? Indeed, you might.

The battlefield where this murderous tale of ambition plays out is a burger shack in the no-account town of the title, population twelve thousand and three. Mac and his wife, Pat, toil there, under the bullying management style of Duncan, the owner. Mac is loaded with innovative ideas -- like adding a drive-through window -- but Duncan, who gets his kicks humiliating his employees, refuses to listen; meanwhile, Pat, frustrated that, ten years into their marriage, she and Mac are stuck in a rusting trailer and living on subsistence wages, starts making exit noises. Mac, wandering through the nearby forest, has a vision of three hippies who, toking up, predict a brilliant future for him, so he and Pat plot to rob the restaurant. Duncan catches them in the act, however; a struggle ensues, ending with Duncan's head in the fryolator. With their ill-gotten gains, Mac and Pat buy the restaurant from Malcolm, Duncan's disaffected teenage son, and Mac sets out to become the "burger king" of Scotland. The fact that nobody questions how this struggling pair are suddenly flush with cash is something that you'll just have to take on faith.

In a way, you have to admire the book's solid construction, not to mention a score that underlines all the key plot points. Mitnick and Gwon were clearly the men for the job; whether the job was worth doing is another question altogether. It's difficult to think of another recent show that has such an enormous "Why?" hanging over it. The story is too ludicrous to be taken on its own terms, and its humor never rises above the level of some halfhearted stoner jokes and some mildly amusing references to McDonald's. The creators never invoke the ironic gulf between the characters' Shakespearean ambitions and their small-time achievements, and the 1970s time frame doesn't yield any satire in the way that, say, Little Shop of Horrors spoofs the 1950s. Indeed, Scotland, PA, often seems to have been assembled from a how-to-write-a-musical guidebook, with directions about where to insert the "I want" song and how to bring down the curtain on Act I. It has everything but inspiration and a point of view.

It also has in Ryan McCartan and Taylor Iman Jones a pair of technically skilled but personality-free leads. This is not a judgment on them; Jones managed to spread some amusement last season in the short-running Head Over Heels, and McCartan has presence and a fine voice. But the book gives them little to work with, and the songs do little or nothing to make their characters interesting as they go about their grisly business. (They at least get to demonstrate their belting capabilities in the climactic numbers: "More," in which they unveil their world burger-domination plan; "Bad Dream," Pat's version of Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene; and "Soliloquy," in which Mac finally realizes that his burger is cooked for good.)

The luxuriously cast supporting lineup fares little better. Alysha Umphress, gotten up in layers of hippie glad rags that put one in mind of Janis Joplin or Mama Cass Elliott, leads the rather wan trio of witches. Before he ends up French-fried, Jeb Brown effectively drips with contempt as Duncan. Jay Armstrong Johnson, sporting amusingly awful hair extensions and employing a totally baked deadpan delivery, does most of the comic heavy lifting as Mac's best friend, Banko. (He has a passable number, "Kick-Ass Party," which reveals that, despite his grand entertaining plans, he sadly has no friends.) Megan Lawrence threatens to liven things up as the vegetarian cop who knows in her bones that Mac and Pat are killers, but her big number, "Peg McDuff is On the Case," never pays off. Newcomer Will Meyers makes a good impression as Malcolm, providing an unexpected alibi for his father's killing in the show's cleverest song, "Why I Love Football."

Price's direction, aided by Josh Rhodes' choreography, keeps things moving apace; to his credit, nobody tries to oversell the book's bumper crop of weak gag lines. Anna Louizos' set design, especially the makeover of Duncan's joint into a Golden Arches clone, is the cleverest thing in the show. Tracy Christensen's costumes provide an amusing inventory of shudder-inducing period fashion errors, especially Banko's party-night leisure suit. Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew's lighting adds attractive color treatments to Louizos' forest scenery. Jon Weston's sound design is both unintrusive and a model of clarity.

But Scotland, PA, has little to offer beyond a pair of unengaging lead characters and an inexplicable lack of purpose. And the jokes just sit there: "You're gonna find your special someone," a co-worker assures Banko. "What if I don't?" he wonders. "Hmm. Then I guess you'll die alone," she says. Demonstrating his wooing style, Banko tells a potential girlfriend, "I always thought Brenda was a beautiful name. Is it Japanese?" One of the songs features an out-of-left-field throwaway joke about, of all things, the Lindbergh baby. Scotland, PA, won't make you want to put your head in the fryolator, but you may wonder what you are doing at the Laura Pels when there are so many more interesting shows to see. -- David Barbour

(23 October 2019)

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