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Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - April 21, 2019

Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus by Taylor Mac. Directed by George C. Wolfe. Scenic design by Santo Loquasto. Costume design by Ann Roth. Lighting design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Hair and wig design by Campbell Young Associates. Movement by Bill Irwin. Original music by Danny Elfman. Cast: Nathan Lane, Kristine Nielsen, and Julie White.
Theatre: Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

Kristine Nielsen and Nathan Lane
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus has a split personality. Half of Taylor Mac's comedy, at the Booth, is a low-comedy, borderline-burlesque romp, trafficking heavily in body functions, bad jokes, and sight gags, and blessed with, in the persons of Nathan Lane, Kristine Nielsen, and Julie White, three peerlessly gifted clowns. The other half is philosophical high comedy, with echoes of Shaw and perhaps Beckett, often in rhyming or blank verse and ruminating on large issues as pertinent now as they were in Shakespeare's day. There are payoffs in both halves, but more in one than the other; and if, in the middle of the social discourse, you wish they'd get back to the body-part juggling, well, join the club.

If you know Titus Andronicus, you know what a mess the stage is by curtain. Shakespeare's most violent play, it's an end-of-the-Roman-empire bloodbath. Among its less fortunate characters, though nobody's lucky in this one, Lavinia, the emperor Titus's daughter, is raped and loses her arms and tongue, while Pelopia and Aegisthus, sons of the king Thyestes, are mutilated and baked into a pie. By the end everybody's dead, and that's where Gary, which alludes to these and other atrocities, picks up.

Resplendent in Ann Roth's stately Elizabethan-Roman garb, and donning one of Campbell Young Associates' wildly elaborate wigs, White enters through the curtain and starts declaiming iambic-pentameter couplets about the public's demand for escalating diversion: "But once routine the thrills, to thrill, must grow/ And if they don't, an outrage starts to show." Incidentally, her throat's been slit, and if you're in the front row, watch out. She's Carol, royal midwife who's guilt-ridden over seemingly having failed to save the infant son of the Goth queen Tamora and the Moor Aron, and she resembles no Julie White I've ever seen. Reeling off clipped consonants (it's like a 1950s Biblical epic; the upper classes have Mayfair accents, everybody else is East End Cockney), she paces through the high comedy like a pro, and she can also do some mean pratfalls.

It's all by way of scene-setting, the curtain parting to reveal Santo Loquasto's elegant banquet hall, piled high with, as Mac's stage directions have it, "at least 1,000 corpses." Are these Loquasto's, too? They're grisly, hilarious wonders, sporting generously realistic penises and spurting ribboned blood. Charged with processing and cleaning up the body count are Gary (Lane) and Janice (Nielsen), sort-of colleagues who know each other but don't share the same background. She's a once and future maid, practical in all matters and expert in corpse-cleaning, and he's a clown — a real clown, in makeup, armed with Harpo horn and voluminous shtick. He's been promoted to maid, and he hopes to ascend to the vaunted rank of royal fool — "a clown with ambition," he puts it. Fools don't just get laughs but get people to think, and such is his aim.

Julie White
Photo by Julieta Cervantes

That's one of Mac's less felicitous premises, and it gets stretched out. Cue much discussion between Gary and Janice on, first, the correct pronunciation of "emperor," drawn out to vaudeville-sketch length, then higher-flown debates about the state of the world, the inadequacy and savagery of its leaders, and whether common folk such as these two could do a superior job. There's a lot of this, and even when it's in verse, it's on the prosaic side.

It's a relief to return to the crasser stuff. Did you know corpses fart? Dan Moses Schreier's sound design is a hoot here, and we haven't even gotten to the head-juggling, jewelry-robbing of slain soldiers, or Gary's staging of a "Fooling," a dead-body pageant meant to stir the decimated populace, with Bill Irwin, no less, listed as movement director. Diversions aplenty, but the words in between do get a little weighty. Gary acquires something of a soul; Janice is stirred to share his desire for betterment of the world and herself, and even starts to rhyme, something she'd previously spurned; and Carol finds a way out of her guilt, bleeding all the while. Their personal stories don't resonate as they should, and maybe that's because George C. Wolfe, whose direction revels in spurting fluids and rude surprises, is comparatively clueless about how to make the most of all the philosophizing and soul-baring, or, at curtain, all the cooing over an infant.

Certainly, he has the right cast for it. Lane, as you doubtless know, can make anything funny, and he even makes Gary's yearnings reverberate emotionally. One can't help but wonder how Andrea Martin, originally cast as Janice but forced by injury to leave, would have nailed the physical and verbal comedy, but Nielsen is both a nimble pratfaller and an expressive, intimidating yeller. White reveals sides of her we never knew, and we want to see more of them.

"If reverence and irreverence were both blended," rhymes the wised-up Janice, "Then it is possible a Fooling could be splendid." Yes, but Wolfe and Mac haven't blended them as neatly as they might have. Gary is frequently funny indeed, a visual feast of anarchy and its aftermath in the worst possible taste, and generous in its ba-dum-bum verbal zingers. When Mac starts to think too hard, though, it falters a bit. Is the world a mess? Sure. Might the rank and file run it better than those now in charge? Maybe. But bring on the fart jokes.

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