On Unmixed Comedy

I’m just coming home now from the closing night of the revival of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore at the Metropolitan Opera. It is, to use a cliche: a delight. To use another, it left me with a spring in my step walking back home. How could this even be possible, to fall so head-over-heels for something so innocent and docile? — by intermission, I wasn’t convinced. The moment of truth came in the second act. The tenor is wine-drunk on what he thinks is a powerful love potion, hoping to woo the capricious soprano. The women of the town have just learned that the tenor’s rich uncle has died. Of course, they swarm, and the tenor is delighted. The love potion is just as magical as he knew it would be. Watching all this (and singing through it) is the soprano, who realizes she loves him with her entire heart —if she’d only thought of that a few hours ago!

Thanks to her belatedness, we have a farce. Not just a farce, as Donizetti’s music makes clear, but one without a bad-natured or shadowy moment. I don’t know enough about Donizetti or opera or singers to comment on anything other than the quality of experience, but that in and of itself is reason enough to write. The soprano of course finds a way to declare her love back to the tenor, the baritone is dispatched, and the chorus celebrates how happy and easy life is. As the score bounces happily along, you have nothing to do but sit back and watch a happy ending. What else could you want?

Not the cast I saw but you get the point.

This is the world of unmixed comedy, and it’s a world that will continue to delight for as long as we can perform. It’s never all that funny, and yet it will provoke genuine feelings of happiness. If laughter is a kind of evasion of joy through release, unmixed comedy prevents that same release, instead forcing you to bottle up your happiness for the characters until it leaves you feeling light in the head. Of course, a wisened audience knows that unmixed comedy is a lie. There are no stories in reality that have such an all-knowing ease. The situation of real life is profoundly uneasy. Yet one does not feel naive in the happiness that comes from unmixed comedy. It is rather an ascension to a higher form of innocence: you watch a world of true happiness and love and feel daemonic, almost inhuman. You don’t ever really want to live in that world, but observing it from our own shadows has the uncanny feeling of a revelation of truth. The world is not an unmixed comedy, but watching a good one will have you believing it just might be possible, on the other side of the proscenium.

In my onion, the greatest unmixed comedy is As You Like It. Rosalind, our heroic cast-out princess, escapes the dreadful melodrama she could be a part of in her palace and goes to live in the forest of Arden, a world of higher innocence. The whole cast of stock characters come to Arden seeking to kill her and her hunky soon-to-be-husband Orlando flat dead. Only they give up their motives and find happiness having sex and singing songs at a pagan wedding with the goddess Hymen. Rosalind ends the play with the only Epilogue Shakespeare wrote for a heroine, with a direct address from the actor, a young pre-pubescent boy.

If I were a woman, I would kiss as many of you as had beards that 
pleas’d me, complexions that lik’d me, and breaths that I defied
not; and, I am sure, as many as have good beards, or good faces, 
or sweet breaths, will, for my kind offer, when I make curtsy, 
bid me farewell.

This mild passage ends Shakespeare’s exaltation at the banquet of life on a subtly homoerotic note, and reminds me delightfully of the very gay audience of rush ticket buyers at the Metropolitan Opera tonight. What could be more gay than seeing L’Elisir d’Amore on a Saturday night? But just because the people doing it are queer, does that make it a queer experience? In 2023, I think so. I got so damn happy watching some soprano and a tenor conquer their baritone, and I think the real reason why is because at heart, I’m a sparkly fairy who wants to believe in a world where everyone can be gay by singing operatically about their lives while a huge orchestra plays. It warms my little gay heart to see unmixed comedy, especially as a sonically gorgeous opera, and I think it deserves recognition as a profound way to trick me into almost skipping down the street after watching a trifle from 1832. It’s a pageant from another land, where wealth is the expectation, but I saw it for $25 and an internet connection. I will never feel morally unmixed stealing joy for myself. I am, after all, stealing the joy. But there’s a cost for everything, and unmixed comedy is another way to make a kind offer in the dark, even as I have to bid it farewell, a spring in my step as I walk into the wind and the rain.


‘Cinderella’ and ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Are the Movie Musicals We Deserve.

On September 14th, a handful of Broadway’s longest-running hits had a chance to re-open their doors. Desperate for the balm of musical theatre, I was among the first audiences for Wicked‘s return. It’s always been a favorite of mine and the past few years have made me eager for easy comfort. The show was exactly what I needed, and the production still holds up. After 18 years, Wicked still resonates, as story, as craft, and as social engagement. While its politics are shallow, the show washes down easy with glitzy special effects and a palpably dramatic story.

Seeing Wicked again, I was reminded of just how affecting musicals can be. Its creators concocted a musical theatre event powerful enough to connect with audiences the globe over. Terry Teachout was underselling it when he called it “more than good enough to run for a decade or two”. There are plenty of flaws if you know where to look, but that September 14th performance provided the kind of overwhelming joy that guarantees the audience will know the great truth of the American theatre: musicals are wonderful

Seeing the Broadway production of Wicked also had the uncanny effect of transporting me to 2003, when the production first opened. All of a sudden, the world was more innocent, more hopeful. Political causes are just as selfish, but perhaps less blindingly stupid. Exiting the Gershwin theatre provided a twofold wound in the form of two hideous billboards in Times Square for the movies of Dear Evan Hansen and Cinderella. It’s not 2003 anymore. It’s eighteen years worse.

Maybe I romanticize the past too much. To be fair, I was five in 2003 and had basically no knowledge of politics or culture — doubtless plenty felt apocalyptic back then, too. Here’s for certain: I’ve seen the films advertised by those hideous billboards, and I’m ready to declare that now is the time of monsters. Flabby, unfunny, joyless soulless vehicles for corrupt moralism, both films approach genuine artistic worthlessness. I have to believe the culture hasn’t always been this lifeless. Even in the few years I’ve run this blog I’ve noticed we’ve started to run out of gas. But we’re running on fumes now, and I have to wonder: how are these movies possible? How did we get here from there?

Continue reading “‘Cinderella’ and ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Are the Movie Musicals We Deserve.”

Flesh of a Corrupted Heart: Shakespeare, Jocelyn Bioh, and Equivocal Joy in Central Park

All hail Jocelyn Bioh. Three years ago MCC premiered her debut play School Girls, or the African Mean Girls Play to thunderous success. Lean, funny, and thought-provoking, it presented a brand-new playwriting voice in Bioh: devoid of pretension but crackling and theatrical. Her next play, Nollywood Dreams, has been delayed, but in the meantime audiences can see her wonderful adaptation of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, here titled just Merry Wives, for free in Central Park.

Continue reading “Flesh of a Corrupted Heart: Shakespeare, Jocelyn Bioh, and Equivocal Joy in Central Park”

Review: “Choir Boy” at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

Manhattan Theatre Club first produced Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy in 2013 as a part of their off-Broadway season. By all accounts, it was a smashing success for the company, both critically and with audiences. 5 years later, MTC has brought the play back in a glossed-up production in their Broadway house. This resurrection may seem out of left field, until one considers the success of Moonlight, the 2017 Academy Award-winner for Best Picture, that was based on an unproduced play by McCraney. MTC is smart to capitalize on that film’s success, especially because Choir Boy is terrific, and is every bit deserving of a production on the great white way, even with its own small share of flaws.

Continue reading “Review: “Choir Boy” at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre”

The Best Theatre of 2018

2018 has been many things, but it has not been dull. The same can be said of the theatre of this year, which had many wonderful highlights and almost as many painfully bad lowlights. Wonderful plays like Is God Is, The Thanksgiving Play, and Mlima’s Tale were highlights of the year, though they just missed out on the top ten list. Of the worst of the year, nothing could possibly come close to the almost unimaginable stupidity of the King Kong musical, but better theatre always makes for more interesting reading; and so, without further ado, my top–10 list of the theatre I saw in 2018.

Continue reading “The Best Theatre of 2018”

Go-See: “Hangmen” at the Atlantic Theater Company

Martin McDonagh, Ireland’s nastiest playwright, seems to be having quite the moment right now. While his plays and movies have long been admired by a rarefied audience, it is the recent critical and commercial success of his Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, up for seven Academy® Awards this Sunday, that has shot McDonagh into the limelight. Folks across the country are able to encounter the solid-yet-unspectacular Billboards for themselves, but New Yorkers are currently presented with a special opportunity to see McDonagh’s latest work for the stage live and in person. It’s an opportunity that you won’t want to miss either: Hangmen is absolutely first-rate McDonagh, fully deserving of being included in the same breath as The Pillowman or The Beauty Queen of Leenane, and as richly entertaining and deeply disturbing as any evening of theatre you’re likely to encounter.

Continue reading “Go-See: “Hangmen” at the Atlantic Theater Company”

Go-See: ‘Miles for Mary’ by The Mad Ones at Playwrights Horizons (Review)

Though in recent months, I have decidedly lessened my output of theatrical criticism—a conscious choice based on a variety of factors—the fact remains that I still make an effort to see an uncommonly high amount of theatrical performance as part of my day-to-day life. Understanding that not every person has such an intense commitment to seeing the density of performances that I do, I have been considering starting a special column specifically dedicated towards recommending and reviewing productions, both in New York City and elsewhere, that I find particularly noteworthy in the interest of helping potential readers determine what theatre is worth their time and money to go and see, and a recent trip to Playwrights Horizons to see Miles for Mary was just the kind of intensely satisfying experience I needed to kick off such writings.

Continue reading “Go-See: ‘Miles for Mary’ by The Mad Ones at Playwrights Horizons (Review)”

The Best Theatre of 2017

Once again we find ourselves at the end of the calendar year, and while most sane humans are taking this time to surround themselves with family and friends in preparation for the new year, the folks who have completely lost their minds—theatre people, as we might term them—use the end of the year to qualify and quantify the theatre performances that they were lucky enough to see throughout the preceding year.

Continue reading “The Best Theatre of 2017”

Review: “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” at the Golden Gate Theatre (Tour)

Britain’s Royal National Theatre, which has an annual budget that could make any of America’s fine regional theaters boil with anger, has perfected a model of high-budget playmaking with large casts and technical dazzle that turns many of their products into must-see events, a rarity for straight plays in an age that heavily favors musical theatre. War Horse, a National Theatre production, hit the brass gong when it transferred to Broadway in 2011 and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, based on the ever-popular novel by Mark Haddon, raked in the cash during its 2014 Broadway run, which lasted over two years. Now, the National’s production of The Curious Incident has made its way to San Francisco on tour, where it once again has become theatre du-jour for eggheaded San Franciscans looking for something highbrow to do with their teenage children, who are doubtless reading Haddon’s novel in their seventh grade english class.

Continue reading “Review: “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” at the Golden Gate Theatre (Tour)”

Review: “The North Pool” at Dragon Productions Theatre Company

Even the most major playwright has her fair share of minor works, the ones that tend to go by the wayside after the author’s death. For every Long Day’s Journey Into Night there is a Desire Under the Elms; every Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has a Clothes for a Summer Hotel. Such is the case with Rajiv Joseph, the prolific and intelligent playwright whose Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was nominated for a Pulitzer in 2011, and whose The North Pool, an 85-minute two-character drama currently in production at Dragon Productions Theatre Company, carries with it the distinct note of being a footnote to larger works by the same author.

Continue reading “Review: “The North Pool” at Dragon Productions Theatre Company”