Off Broadway Reviews
The occasion was the opening of The Hang, a highly imaginative "jazz opera" celebrating the life and, yes, the death of the Greek philosopher Socrates. The book and lyrics are by Taylor Mac and the music is by Matt Ray. They are the pair who previously collaborated on the extraordinary A 24-Decade History of Popular Music performed as a single straight-through live 24-hour piece that covered American music from 1776 to the present time. I do hasten to note, however, that The Hang runs just under two hours, with no intermission. And, despite occasional musings on the nature of virtue (Socrates being Socrates, after all), the overall experience is one of unbridled and most infectious joy.
Bear in mind, the "joy" part does take a little bit of time to kick in. The Hang begins with the sounds of dissonant progressive jazz accompanying a funereal procession of the cast members (all terrific), who fill the space with all the wailing and weeping they can muster. While the costumes by Machine Dazzle do give everyone the look of Mardi Gras revelers, this opening is quite ritualized. And when Socrates (Taylor Mac) speaks, it is in formal tones: "Oh, Athenians, the poison's drunk. My mind is drifting on and must debunk the verdict that a thought will trick or kill you."
But don't despair. You are not in for an evening of oratorical flourishes. Before very long, Socrates decides to hell with it. It's his party, and he has no interest in "this great harangue. All I wish on my final day is to talk on virtue and hang." And that, in a nutshell, is exactly what takes place during The Hang: a little philosophy and a lot of hanging out with a fabulous group of guests who sing, dance (to Chanon Judson's choreography), drink, gossip, reminisce, engage is some intimate behaviors, and generally just have a grand old time at a good old fashioned pre-death wake.
More importantly, they generously take us along for the ride. Apart from the members of the cast who fearlessly throw themselves into their parts, I cannot possibly overpraise the musicians. They, too, are given prominent roles throughout the production, and deservedly so. They are top-tier performers of Matt Ray's score that incorporates elements of New Orleans jazz, be-bop, progressive jazz, boogie-woogie, blues, swing, and more. Among the numbers are some terrific crowd pleasers like a piece called "OK Boomer," and another in which Socrates does his best Noël Coward imitation to describe his trial.
At one point, Mac as Socrates addresses the audience: "I apologize to the people who like structure." But really, this is a very well-structured production, under Niegel Smith's loose-knit but nevertheless well-knit direction. There may be some twists in the road along the way, but that is very much in keeping with the blending of party atmosphere with elements of Socratic philosophy.
Toward the inevitable end, there is a number called "The Jockey," performed by cast members dressed all in black, as if coming up from the underworld: "The party is over," they chant. "The hemlock is plucked. The parent is early, and now we're all fucked." Death cannot be avoided, but the clear message is that we can and should make the best of the time we have before the hemlock kicks in. And perhaps even after, if Taylor Mac, who notably is a recipient of a MacArthur genius grant, has anything to say about it.