By EDWARD RUBIN
MCC Theater’s production of Which Way To The Stage running through Saturday, May 28, at the Robert W. Wilson Theater Space at 511 West 52nd Street in Manhattan, is one of the most enjoyable plays that I saw this season.
Not only has the play been extended a week – my very hope while watching the play – but the audience, a heavy contingent of yeah-saying youngsters, many obviously actors most likely seduced by word-of-mouth, not only continued to clap after the actors left the stage, but gathered in the theater’s lobby to continue the conversation. And why not? Playwright Ana Nogueira, an actress herself, had just fed them the unvarnished story of life in the theater: the ups, the downs, and the sideways.
As the lights go up, standing in front of the stage door of Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre, we find ourselves in the midst of an intense and rapid rat-a-tat-tat- conversation between a rather plain-looking, dressed down Judy (Sas Goldberg) and the obviously gay (he makes no bones about it) Jeff (Max Jenkins), two theater loving actors and longtime best friends since college.
Judy is 33 and makes her living as a real estate agent. Jeff, somewhere around the same age, is a Crunch instructor who both performs and hosts drag acts at a gay club on Mondays. The year is 2015, and both are waiting for the If/Then star Idina Menzel, their current obsession, to come out of the theater and autograph their Playbills, a wait that is repeated a couple of times during the play.
This authentically sounding opening conversation between Judy and Jeff, both funny and provocative at the same time – believable dialogue is one of Nogueira’s major coups – centers around which actress made the best Mama Rose. Judy ops for Bernadette Peters. “When Bernadette’s Mama Rose says ‘I was born too soon and I started too late. With what I have in me I could have been better than any of you!’ I believe her. I’m like ‘You could have blown your daughter out of the fucking water. You’re the real star. But you got pregnant. So you missed your chance. Done. ”
For Jeff, considerably more confident than Judy in both body and talent (he actually played Mama Rose in one of his drag acts), it is Patti LuPone who deserves the Mama Rose crown. “Bernadette might have made a believable stripper,” he says, “but she feels soft and meek and like a little baby lamb. Where Patti feels dangerous. I’m like actually afraid of what she’s going to do. Is she going to stab her daughter? Is she going to rape Herbie? Is she going to unhinge her jaw and devour them all? I don’t know! I honestly don’t know. And that’s what keeps me hooked.”
Leaving the stage door behind, the audience is quickly shepherded to an audition waiting room where we meet Judy, Mark (a handsome Evan Todd), and the beautiful triple role-playing Michell Veintimilla, referred to in the play’s program as Actress, Bachelorette, and Casting Director. Each is there to audition for a part in Avenue Q, the only drawback being that the play is being mounted at a theater in Bass Harbor, Maine, where nobody of any importance, as one actor quips, will see them. And this is for an entire summer.
After much theater banter Mark offers to give both Judy and the Actress guitar lessons for practically nothing. Upon leaving he drops each a note on a chair holding their belongings asking them to call him. Is this flirty or friendly or both? For Judy, as she later tells Jeff who gets gay vibes when he finally meets Mark and finds him desirable, it’s a welcome come on from a straight guy. She sees Mark’s guitar offer as a sexual innuendo. After all, she says “a guitar is shaped like a penis and you have to stroke it.” A jealous Jeff’s seeing it as purely a friendly gesture puts a strain their friendship.
Further placing them at loggerheads, one of many opposing views that crop up down the road, is Jeff’s newest project in which he intends to channel Idina Menzel as his next drag act. Judy, loving Menzel as she does, finds lampooning Menzel extremely distasteful “I don’t feel like she’s the kind of performer who has things that you can make fun of.” As for Mark, he is more than excited to finally see Jeff perform in drag. Though both attend Jeff’s show, Judy, feigning a sudden illness, leaves halfway through the show, an explosive choice that threatens to end her friendship with Jeff.
While the swirl of play’s action wraps itself around the actors and hurtles them forward in slightly less than two intermission-less hours, a series of cultural observations and arguments pop up at every turn. Topics touched upon, all cleverly stitched into the text so as not to sound like a lecture, range from gender, sexuality, and class, with special nods given to homophobia and misogyny in the theater.
Though Judy never gets cast in any of plays that she goes out for – at one audition she is actually told to take more classes – she finally succumbs to Jeff’s continual advice to feel herself. “Be more like ooooh! More obsessed with your body and what it can do,” he says. “Like, who cares if no one wants to fuck you.” In the last scene of the play, amidst waves of thunderous applause that bring the audience to its feet we are shocked to find the formerly reticent Judy, change from an slowly moving earthbound caterpillar into a dazzling high-flying butterfly of great beauty. It is an exhilarating site to behold.
Note: Masks are required in the building and theatre, along with proof of a vaccination and a valid government-issued photo ID.
Cast: Sas Goldberg (Judy), Max Jenkins (Jeff), Evan Todd (Mark), Michelle Veintimilla (Actress/Bachelorette/Casting Director)
Technical: Scenic Designer: Adam Rigg, John Farrell, Costume Design: Enver Chakartash, Lighting Design: Jen Schriever, Mextly Couzin, Sound Design: Sinan Refik Zafar, Hair and Makeup Design: Domino Couture, Vocal Supervisor: Liz Caplan
MCC Theatre opened their production of Which Way To The Stage on Tuesday, May 10, 2022 at the Robert W. Wilson Theater Space at 511 West 52nd Street in Manhattan. The play will be running through Saturday May 28, 2022 Running time is 1 hour 50 minutes with no intermission. For more information, or to buy tickets call 646-506-9393 or go to https://mcctheater.org