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A Strange Loop

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - June 17, 2019

L Morgan Lee, John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, Larry Owens,
Antwayn Hopper, Jason Veasey, and James Jackson, Jr.
Photo by Joan Marcus

A Strange Loop belongs to a theatrical subgenre that's been proliferating at an alarming rate over the past few seasons: the Autobiographical Play I Wrote Because Writing's Cheaper Than Therapy. Michael R. Jackson, the librettist-composer-lyricist, has issues — boy, does he have issues — that he parades before us with commendable candor, welcoming the audience deep into his troubled young mind. It's an eventful journey, and A Strange Loop works well, until it doesn't.

Submitted for your approval: Usher (Larry Owens), Jackson's stand-in, whose name is a pun. Surely it's an allusion to his famous namesake, whom the author admires for being so successful (and so straight?). Usher's also an usher, at The Lion King, and clad in an usher's outfit, by Montana Levi Blanco, that's sadly maybe 90 years out of date. He's a pudgy gay black man of 25, and when he's not ushing he's working on his autobiographical musical, A Strange Loop. As Usher explains it: "It's about a black queer man who's writing a musical about a black queer man who's writing a musical about a black queer man, etc." That's the strange loop. Or maybe it is. Usher has a longish monologue explaining the title, about sense of self vs. reality vs. abstraction vs. illusion, but you may zone out in the middle of it. I did.

As Usher, Owens smiles a lot and sings beautifully, in a wide, expressive range, but that seems a ploy to temper Usher's anger sources, which are many and profound. His protestations notwithstanding, he hates his parents, religious traditionalists who won't accept his queerness and resent his career choice. He hates almost anyone more successful than he is. He hates other black gay men he sees as selling out by hooking up with white guys. He really hates Tyler Perry, for perpetuating comforting old black stereotypes (his ire for Perry takes up a good 20 minutes of running time). And he hates being single.

Not a promising landscape for musical comedy, is it? But for a good stretch, Jackson keeps us engaged. Everyone else is played by six "Thoughts" (Antwayn Hopper, James Jackson Jr., L Morgan Lee, John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, and Jason Veasey). They're his parents (Morrison, pretty in pink, does an impressive turn as Mom), his imaginary boyfriends, his fawning agent (Jackson Jr.'s pretty hilarious), and other disturbing or amusing manifestations of his id. There's the "daily self-loathing" (Jackson again), who keeps reminding Usher of his worthlessness. There's his "inner white girl," whom he envies for being free of so many cultural constraints that engulf him. And there's a very funny "Guardians of Musical Theatre Centrism Tribunal" that lectures him on what he can and can't write about.

He doesn't heed their advice, and that leads to some pretty bizarro moments. The season's young, but you're unlikely to encounter a scene more confrontational or shocking than "Inwood Daddy," where Usher, bathed in Jen Schriever's blazing red light, meets a racist white dude online and treks uptown to take it up the bum from him. Let's hear it for musical anal intercourse! It's meant to be provocative, and it is. So is the Tyler Perryesque play Usher eventually writes (for the money), which climaxes in Arnulfo Maldonado's spare set opening up into an elaborate bi-level fantasy, and a gospel choir endlessly chanting, "AIDS is God's punishment." Maybe there's a way to make religious hypocrisy about AIDS funny. This isn't it.

Jackson's melodies fall easily on the ear, when they don't repeat themselves too much, and his lyrics are rather better than his music, when they don't repeat themselves too much. Unlike many young musical writers, he cares about scansion and (mostly) perfect rhyme, and he has some clever, evocative ideas. "Exile in Gayville," which evidently alludes to a Liz Phair hit (a working knowledge of Phair, which I don't have, would be helpful), eloquently dramatizes Usher's ambivalence about being on the periphery of gay culture. The opening number, celebrating a "big, black, queer-ass American Broadway show," does everything an opening number should. And "Didn't Want Nothin'," sung by several Thoughts representing Usher's harsh dad, stings with passive-aggressive parental disapproval.

And for someone who's so self-critical and so envious of everyone in show business who's more famous than he is, Jackson has surely won himself a lulu of a Playwrights Horizons debut. Stephen Brackett brings the same frantic spirit and intensity he brought to his direction of Be More Chill, while Raja Feather Kelly's choreography recalls the elegant precision she brought to last season's If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka at Playwrights. Charlie Rosen's orchestrations are resonant and off-Broadway-elaborate, and they're conducted with energy and expressiveness by Rona Siddiqui. Alex Hawthorn's showy sound design revels in echoes and special effects and doesn't obscure too many lyrics, except when there's lots of counterpoint going on (often) or when Owens is singing too fast (also often).

Jackson, in short, is lucky. Which isn't to say he lacks talent. A Strange Loop shows promise, and one hopes that, having gotten this musical session on the couch out of his system, he'll next tackle something more far-reaching and less, to quote one of his many self-obsessed lyrics, "navel-gazey." Mr. Jackson, you're young, gifted, and black, and if you feel unloved, this effort ought to throw some admiration your way. But maybe next time you should try being more inclusive and spend less time ragging mercilessly on your many betes noires. Open up your heart, and open up some books, and get away from all the me-me-me.

A Strange Loop
Through July 7
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral