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Scotland, PA

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - October 23, 2019

The Company
Photo by Nina Goodheart

We may as well consider Scotland, PA an original musical, its parentage is that obscure. The source material is a low-budget independent movie from 2001, starring James Le Gros and Maura Tierney; its worldwide gross, according to the IMDB, was $384,098. That didn't stop Michael Mitnick (book) and Adam Gwon (music and lyrics) from seeing a cheeky musical comedy in it, and that's what emerges onstage at the Laura Pels — a little sloppy, not without longueurs, but well-produced, well-cast, and zippy.

Actually, Scotland, PA's ancestry is older than that: It's a riff on Macbeth, resettled in a deadly-dull little mid-Pennsylvania town in the mid-'70s, and set not amid Scottish government intrigue but in a diner, predictably named Duncan's, whose eponymous owner (Jeb Brown) is someone we want to see die. He has one son, not two, Malcolm (Will Meyers), a low-aiming high schooler with a secret. The other characters have Shakespearean parallels of varying fidelity. Mac (Ryan McCartan), at first, isn't Macbethian at all: He's a sweet guy who lives mainly to please his wife and co-worker Pat (Taylor Iman Jones), whose ambitions more closely mirror Lady Macbeth's. Fellow employee Banko (Jay Armstrong Johnson) is a lovable idiot, and Peg McDuff (Megan Lawrence) is a detective who shows up at first act curtain to investigate the rapidly multiplying murders.

The witches, too, aren't quite witches. Jessie (Alysha Umphress), Stacey (Wonu Ogunfowora), and Hector (Kaleb Wells), all adorable in Tracy Christensen's upscale-Woodstock duds, are merely the stoned voices in Mac's head dancing around him, making prescient and ominous predictions, and fueling his escalating lust for power. (If they're just voices, though, why do they pull a Post-it note out of his shirt, which he demands back? Neatness, writers, neatness.) About that lust for power: It's not there at all and then, after one little production number, very there, one among several instances of characters evolving more suddenly and less credibly than we'd like.

It's a merry ride, though, as Mac exposes the subterfuge of nasty boss Doug (David Rossmer), reluctantly accepts Pat's plan to rob the diner, watches it go awry, and ends up semi-intentionally killing Duncan. With Malcolm's blessing he takes over the establishment and turns it into McBeth's, a burger joint with a big-M-on-red logo, an innovative drive-thru window, and a winning slogan, You Deserve a Break Today. Anna Louizos's hardworking set even turns the lobby into a makeshift McBeth's before intermission, as the ushers don red-and-yellow aprons.

Now, this is silly. McDonald's dates back to 1940, Ray Kroc franchised it in 1955, You Deserve a Break Today was launched in 1971, and drive-thru windows were pioneered in the 1930s. Thus the whole plot engine feels false, though the 1975 trappings are fragrant and funny. (Mac: "Let's go see a movie. There's a late showing of Jaws." Banko: "I've seen it three times... and still don't understand it.") References to Columbo, Kojak, and Merv Griffin are rife, and Gwon's music, a frisky blending of showtune and '70s-rock pastiche, is period-appropriate and lively. His lyrics are on the basic side — "Empires rise and empires fall, but all great powers started small" — but at least they're neat, with some cute ideas that give the cast real opportunities to shine. Banko's "Kick-Ass Party" is a near-show stopper, the plaintive posturing of a loser imagining himself a winner, while Malcolm's "Why I Love Football" is slyly character-revealing. McCartan shows off an excellent tenor while transitioning, not entirely persuasively, from meek Mac to fierce McBeth; Jones, a little pitchy at first, settles in quickly and vents Pat's frustrations in a high-powered "Bad Dream."

By then, the tone's shifted violently and abruptly, from a clever, impudent musical-comedy-ization of a classic to a dark, violent meditation on power, revenge, and the corrupting influences of fame and clout. I'm happier on the light side. There's a last-minute reversion to jokiness, but it's too late.

It's a dynamo production, though, with Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew's lighting conveying various characters' increasingly bold emotions, and Jon Weston's sound design combining elaborate effects with mostly-audible lyrics. Josh Rhodes's choreography is story-supporting and just the right size, and Lonny Price's direction maximizes the comedy — lines that aren't that hilarious on the page generate huge laughs. Scotland, PA is ragged around the edges, marred by character motivations that don't always make sense and changes of tone we haven't been adequately primed for. And if Mitnick and Gwon have anything of Shakespearean profundity to say about ambition, retribution, or how the unmet needs of the underclass can turn ugly and destructive, it didn't reach J110. But how many literate, funny musical comedies are out there right now? And have you seen what's coming in? We'll take this.

Scotland, PA
Through December 8
Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue
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