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Play It Cool

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Play It Cool
Michael Buchanan, Michael F. McGuirk, Sally Mayes, and Robyn Hurder.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Where there’s smoke, there is not always fire. For evidence of this, you need look no further than the new production of Play it Cool that just opened at the Acorn Theatre. This musical about the Hollywood gay underground in the early 1950s is so stuffed with sultry jazz that you can practically smell the cigarettes permeating every cubic inch of air within its setting at the downstairs Mary’s Hideaway, located just off of Sunset Boulevard. Yet despite a superlative cast led by Sally Mayes and a three-piece combo (conducted by David Libby) that does New Orleans proud, nary a spark is created from anything spoken or sung. Factor in the overactive Theatre Row air conditioning, and you’re sitting through an unseasonable deep freeze.

Given the territory the play covers, some of this is unavoidable. Librettists Larry Dean Harris (who also conceived the show) and Martin Casella have set out to scribe a scathing indictment of the closet-packed Tinseltown that in the show’s 1953 setting ruined at least as many lives as it built careers. We follow four of those: Mary (Mayes), the proprietor of the club that caters exclusively to the disenfranchised; her lover, Lena (Robyn Hurder), a suave singer with Veronica Lake–like looks desperate for her big break; Eddie (Chris Hoch), an in-hiding studio exec; and Will (Michael Buchanan), the fresh-faced gay boy just off the bus Eddie hopes to guide into both a seven-year contract and his bed.

Harris and Casella largely get right the weight that’s stifling all their happiness; a sense of dread hangs in the air as thick as cigar exhaust, with the sole staircase leading in and out of the bar (the comfortably period set design is by Thomas A. Walsh) highlighting the Hideaway as the barely sanctioned dungeon it is. And the idea of a single police officer, Henry (Michael F. McGuirk), who’s taken the joint under his wing and his protection — for a not-so-small fee, of course — as effectively points to the plight of the sympathizers in the face of bigotry. Henry is as overwhelmed by the prospect of fulfilling his social charge to the best of his ability as everyone else is, and his being more like them than he would care to admit helps the otherwise underwritten character work in some difficult circumstances.

Unfortunately, this leads to (way) too much of a good thing. Play it Cool starts off bleak and never gets better; whenever one character advances, whether to a lucrative deal or a marriage proposal or the chance of a lasting relationship, it’s usually only a matter of seconds until it’s either ripped away or crushing someone else’s dreams. The idea that intolerance of any kind always causes a cascade is a fascinating one, but everyone is bereft of joy for some reason or another, and that makes suffering their plights along with them unpleasant at best and downright unappetizing at worst.

It’s not impossible that the score could mitigate this, but this one, which has lyrics by Mark Winkler and music by Phillip Swann and five other contributors, never cooks. Various numbers slither, scat, scold, and sigh, but don’t suggest an emotional world as steamy or fulfilling as the best jazz can. The tunes lack the necessary undulating eroticism, and often even coherent forward motion, that might identify them as legitimate theatre songs. That almost all are diegetic doesn’t help; what few glimpses the characters give us into their souls get lost amid the swirling beats and comp chords that define the club itself. The closest thing to a memorable song is the post-intermission-recap “Turn Up the Heat,” and that only because of McGuirk, Buchanan, and Hoch’s tight trio singing.

But if something is clearly wrong with the writing, that doesn’t extend to most of the cast. Mayes, as anyone who’s seen her before well knows, is a true queen of the form, and owns Mary’s numbers with a veteran’s aplomb. Ideal at conveying both Mary’s whiskey-drenched regret and her slow-bubbling sense of hope, Mayes finds the full scope of the bar owner who feels most at home in men’s clothing (the costume designer is Therese Bruck). Hardly worse is Hurder, a scorching looker and crooner who capably balances Lena’s decorum and opportunism as they shift between recipients. Buchanan brings an agreeable innocence to the wet-behind-the-ears Will, though Hoch and McGuirk too easily slip into caricature — the former the recovering nerd, the latter the Hard-Boiled Detective With a Debilitating Secret — when more delicate touches would better serve their roles.

A greater lightness would help everything about Play it Cool, from the writing to Marc Kimelman’s choreography to Sharon Rosen’s direction. Most individual elements would work on their own, but grouped together they make one of the biggest downer musicals in recent memory. Since its 2008 run at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, the show has been polished slightly, but remains a message piece that shouts its message too aggressively for its own good. Perhaps Studio System L.A. was not the Dream Factory it was so often painted. But nothing is gained — and much is lost — by depicting the entire thing as one endless, chilly nightmare.


Play It Cool
Through October 9
Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, including one intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge