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Theatre in Review: Happy Birthday Doug (SoHo Playhouse)

Drew Dreoge. Photo: Russ Rowland.

Happy Birthday Doug marks the return of Drew Droege, the comic Margaret Mead of the gay set in the Silverlake section of Los Angeles. The action -- a series of monologues -- unfolds at a birthday party held in the back room of a wine bar, and mayhem is guaranteed. The guests include Jason -- who wasn't invited but has shown up anyway -- a waking nightmare of buzzwords, social media clich├ęs, and half-baked New Age nonsense ("Like, honestly, every moment is exactly as it should be"), all of which come out in an aggressive outpouring that brooks no interruption. Jason announces extravagantly that he is now sober, and you can bet that it will last at least ten minutes. Brian, a waiter at the bar, is dazzled by the guest of honor, who has just published a novel, but he is so caught up in political correctness that he offers warnings with each order. ("Well, you actually can't really call it Pinot Noir -- it's disruptive and condescending to the region.") Brian is attracted to another guest, Devin, who hasn't slept with everyone at the party yet, but is well on his way.

Contrast is provided by Harrison and Jackson, married and so pleased with themselves that they are intolerable to everyone else. At the moment, they can't stop cooing over their new daughter, Thessaly, named in honor of a recent vacation. ("We went there three summers ago -- oh -- the olives!") Offering the long view is Christopher, who, with his partner of several decades, mostly prefers to stay at home with their collies, Barbra and Madeline. (As it happens, What's Up, Doc? is their idea of a cinematic masterpiece.) A veteran of Hollywood's gay scene, he gets lost in memories of Roddy McDowall and Natalie Wood, which are likely to leave the others baffled. Steven, Doug's stuck-up ex, shows up long enough to reveal that he is working on a Netflix series -- information that is, apparently, on a strictly need-to-know basis -- and make a few bitter remarks before making a grand departure. There is even a mystery guest in the form of Oscar Wilde, who -- rather like E. M. Forster in The Inheritance --shows up to muse, boozily, on changing times.

All of these characters and Doug, the birthday boy, are portrayed by the hardworking Droege, who earned a lot of love from critics and audiences a couple of seasons back playing a ticking bomb of a wedding guest in Bright Colors and Bold Patterns. Happy Birthday Doug works a similar vein; it is also more ambitious in the sense that the actor essays so many characters. While his fan base is unlikely to mind, this is a much spottier evening, because the portraits are so variable. The best by far is Jason, who exemplifies Droege's finely tuned ear for conversational inanities. Making a drama out of his so-called journey to sobriety, Jason compares himself to Shia LaBeouf, pausing, just for a second, to note, "I mean, Shia is a great actor -- and kind of a friend of mine." It's not easy to make a confession and name-drop in a single stroke, but he does it with gusto. Also rib-tickling is his account of his "healer," named Debruary Coleman, and his account of hitting rock bottom by staggering into a community theatre production of On Golden Pond and throwing up on cue.

Steven, with his acid manner, frozen hauteur, and transparent attempts at making Doug jealous, is a lot of fun, too. Most of the other characters have their moments, but Brian, with his panic of cultural appropriation, never really comes into focus. Devin gets so little time that one suspects Droege doesn't really have a handle on him yet. Harrison and Jackson are funny and grating in equal measure, so it's a bit of a relief when they announce that their early bedtime beckons. Christopher is sweet, but his connection to the others is shaky at best, and Oscar Wilde is too awkwardly interpolated -- and not stylishly enough written or acted -- to make a strong impression. Nor does Doug's final monologue satisfy as an evening closer. The script shows every sign of needing a little more time in the playwright's laptop before becoming fully stageworthy.

It's also possible that the director, Tom DeTrinis, doesn't have the same deft touch as Michael Urie, who staged Bright Colors and Bold Patterns and serves as coproducer here. A fair number of laughs are scattered throughout, and there is something touching about his underlying theme of friendship conquering all. I happily look forward to Droege's next piece, but this one is a little less bright and bold than one would like. -- David Barbour

(13 February 2020)

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