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To My Girls

Theatre Review by James Wilson - April 12, 2022

Britton Smith, Jay Armstrong Johnson, and Maulik Pancholy
Photo by Joan Marcus
As the lights come up on the glittering Palm Springs house in JC Lee's To My Girls, now playing at Second Stage Theater, there is a palpable sense of magic. Initially, Jen Schriever's fuchsia lighting casts a spell on scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado's shiny kitchen and kitschy living room, which is overflowing with throw pillows. The lighting effect immediately transforms, and the room is saturated with the restorative rays of the hot desert sun revealing the details of the Jonathan Adler-inspired decor. Even before the first two characters enter and the discussion quickly turns to drag, the fabulous setting seems primed for a group of vacationing gay men with expendable incomes.

The premise immediately calls to mind Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion!, which centered around a group of gay men sharing a lakeside house over three summer holiday weekends. The men in that play, like the ones we meet in To My Girls, throw shade, spill the tea, and recount the numerous betrayals in their long friendships. While McNally's play is set in a time in which AIDS continues to ravage gay communities, the plague of Lee's world seems to have at least abated. The characters gather to celebrate the end of a catastrophic era, which one of the men describes as "four years of He Who Shall Not Be Named, a global pandemic, and a canceled Lady Gaga stadium tour."

To My Girls comprises stock figures recognizable from plays like The Boys in the Band, Torch Song Trilogy, Jeffrey, and Angels in America. First, we meet Bernie (hilariously played by Bryan Batt), an effeminate older gay man and owner of the house. Bernie's closest companion is his Pomeranian dog Sophia (a "Golden Girls" reference, natch). The focus, though, is on a trio of old friends, who are renting the house for the weekend and have promised to write a favorable AirBnB review. These include Curtis (a simultaneously charming and oily Jay Armstrong Johnson), the gorgeous Chelsea boy for whom everyone lusts; Castor (Maulik Pancholy nailing every bitchy joke), a loud and self-identified gay stereotype, but who is deeply insecure about his sexuality; and finally, the sage and witty Leo (Britton Smith providing the head and heart of the comedy), who as an African American, experiences many forms of oppression.

Bryan Batt, Noah J. Ricketts, and Maulik Pancholy
Photo by Joan Marcus
Other visitors to the house are Omar (a nicely modulated performance by Noah J. Ricketts who has abs of steel), a beautiful and sexual newcomer to the group who tests the loyalties of the friends; and finally, Jeff (Carman Lacivita, funny but assigned a thankless role), who is one half of a long-term, troubled relationship.

The comedy up-ends some of the clichés associated with the character archetypes, such as making the presumably one-night-stand Omar notably intelligent and commitment-minded. The play also tackles current issues and contemporary talking points about white privilege, the pitfalls of social media, and the pros and cons of gay marriage. Nevertheless, for a play set in the near-present, To My Girls is very old-fashioned and has the breezy, yet musty, feel of a sitcom. Even the title, with its nod to homosexuality as an act of gender reversal, harkens back to a time when gay men referred to each other as "Mary" and used feminine pronouns as an act of joyful rebellion. In 2022, girl, that is so binary.

If there is not a great deal of depth and substance to the character development and relationships, the play benefits from Stephen Brackett's quick-paced direction. In addition, Lee's script has its share of gags, and to be sure there are wall-to-wall jokes. In particular, the gay references were consumed like cat nip for the predominantly male audience with whom I saw the show. For instance, when Bernie asks whether the friends perform drag, Curtis matter-of-factly responds, "After enough vodka sodas doesn't everyone?" And describing a dance act called "Cher-nobyl," Leo explains that it involves impersonating "Chers from different eras exposed to excessive radiation poisoning."

There is also a dance break (reminiscent of the "Heat Wave" line dance in The Boys in the Band), which the men do in drag (similar to the Swan Lake bit in Love! Valour! Compassion!). Sarafina Bush designed the costumes (including skimpy bathing suits), and these add to the airy confection. In the end, though, the whole enterprise seems like an elaborate meringue composed of empty calories.

Ultimately, To My Girls may provide a welcome relief for pandemic-affected audiences starving for non-stop camp and fabulousness. Others, however, who have been weaned on a regular diet of charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent, would realize that a single episode of "RuPaul's Drag Race" offers a more raucous and emotionally satisfying evening.

To My Girls
Through April 24, 2022
Second Stage Theater, Tony Kiser Theater, 305 West 43rd Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: