In life, there are some things any idiot should know: (1) purchases made in a frenzied panic during the last fifteen minutes of the Barneys Warehouse Sale will always turn out to be among the most versatile and wearable in your wardrobe; (2) having a baby is just the thing to fix a troubled marriage; and (3) the most foolproof way to save an inert new musical that lacks an as yet a finished score, a complete book, or any semblance of cohesive narrative structure is to replace its wholly competent star with a rapidly fading and aging imaginary movie actress who has never done professional — or even unprofessional — theater before.
I mean, such a person is obviously going to be easy to work with, right? Unfailingly gracious and reliable and incredibly secure, don’t you agree? Oh excuse me, it isn’t Opposite Day? And instead of “any idiot” I should have written “only idiots?” And I have maybe eaten so many Peeps in the Sisyphean struggle to stay awake long enough to get this in on time that I have actually turned into a Peep, just as my mother warned so many moons ago? And if I am, in fact, a Peep, how am I typing right now? And what in the unpronounceable name of the God of Israel is Debra Messing dressed up as this time?
So many tangential questions, so few satisfying answers. No knot unties itself. Such is the world of Smash.
For now, let us cast our eye on the rehearsal hall, where all the relevant idiots have assembled to worshipfully await the arrival of their savior, Rebecca Duvall, for her first reading for the investors. All the preparations listed in her contract rider have been made. The pencils have been sharpened to a needle-fine point and laid eraser-side-down at precisely fourteen-and-a-half-inch intervals along the tables. The ensemble members are dressed in form-fitting black to look as much like stagehands as possible, with the exception of Eyelid, who as instructed, is festooned as instructed in plush carcasses retrieved from the Dumpster behind the Build-A-Bear workshop. At the other end of the table, Ellis Dappledawn, Princeling of the Woodlands, is so excited he has to adjust his binder to conceal the first unforced erection he has had in response to a woman since his girlfriend Holly Hedgehog said: “Oh, by the way, my mom is Phylicia Rashad.”
But wait! Rebecca Duvall isn’t coming! You see, she’s been held up in Cuba on some humanitarian junket with Sean Penn, who also hasn’t been working much lately (in the corner, the actor playing Arthur Miller visibly stiffens), so it’s a big oopsie! And you know, I thought I was kind of over pointing out the kind of things on this show that don’t make sense, because there’s only so many times you can be like: “If they’re so against abortions, why don’t they care about people after they’re born?” before you realize that they don’t care about making sense, and you might as well stop yelling at the computer and just read that article about all the different exciting things people in Brooklyn are doing with coleslaw.
But isn’t being stranded in a country to which it is illegal for Americans to travel something they could have gotten some advance notice about? Like, nothing crazy, just an hour or so before everyone was supposed to be out, so Anjelica Huston could have activated the talking Patronus calling tree and saved herself a reprimand from Manny Azenberg and his stern band of wizened Asian financiers about how Jerry never would never have flaked out on them like this and how there will be no checkies until he gets to play the virgin milkmaid and the well-hung stable boy with the star of My Super Ex-Girlfriend, as promised.
In the meantime, they need an understudy for Marilyn And … you guessed it! It’s Karen Cartwright, your American Idol, who goes all fluttery and tremulous and “Who, me?” like she hasn’t been imagining this every fucking day of her stupid fucking life. Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor, Karen. Make the most of it, and not just by listlessly arguing that Arthur Miller shouldn’t be so condescending talking about Greek cross-dressers or something. And because she feels that way, the lines should be changed because Arthur Miller should have been a better husband who should have married her for her intellectual capacity instead of for her bodacious tatas, and therefore the lines and character should be changed. Karen, it’s called subtext. It’s right there in the dictionary between substitute and sucking.
The good thing that happens in rehearsal is that there’s a new Shaiman & Wittman number, “Don’t Say Yes Until I Finish Talking,” featuring my fellow Nebraskan Daryl Zanuck! In a steam room! And it’s great, and Christian Borle performs it, and he’s great, but the only problem was that I got a little distracted by the towels. See, the chorus boys were wearing towels around their waists, but sometimes in the course of the choreography they whipped them off and put them around their necks, so then were they supposed to be nude during those parts? Maybe next time they should just be actually nude, so I’d be able to focus on important things such as the lyrics, and their buttocks. You’re welcome, NBC!
And what of Ivy, the newly uninsurable Lindsay Lohan of 42nd Street? Oh she’s fine, just spending most of her time drinking red wine to signify her incipient alcoholism (which on TV means ostentatiously drinking alcohol in more than three consecutive episodes, unless you are on Cheers, in which case nothing to see here, folks) and getting Token to help her deface magazines from 2003 with Uma Thurman on the cover, like she has anything to do with anything. Of course, Token wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize his “main gay” status with Ivy like telling her the truth, so it’s up to Derek — who despite all signifiers to the contrary has become what seems like a loving, committed boyfriend — to tell her about Karen’s ascension.
After a well-deserved snide remark or four, Ivy (who still has pictures of Marilyn glued to her mirror, P.S.) actually takes it pretty well. She even gives Derek solid advice on how to deal with a wan little lint ball like Karen, wistfully noting that “Marilyn” (i.e., “Ivy”) worked best with directors who coddled her. I’ve said this before, Ivy, but one should be careful identifying too strongly with a character they’re no longer playing; I knew a girl who did that once, and for all I know, twenty-odd years later, she’s still calling her husband “Daddy Warbucks” during intercourse. (And no, it’s not me. I never played Annie. My head was too big for the wig. And obviously, I call my husband “Professor Higgins” when we do it, like a sexually mature woman.)
The point is, Ivy’s plotting to get herself back in the show by pretending to be nice by actually being nice, which is a sentence that makes me think I actually understand the principle of Schrödinger’s cat after all. This is symbolized by the segment in which she interior-songologue’s (a word I just made up, congratulate me!) Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway” by transforming herself into Marilyn to imaginary end-of-Titanic-style applause from the cast and creative team. Then she strangles Karen and kicks her corpse under the bed, because we can’t use dream sequences to escape our narrative problems, Liesl, we have to face them. So that’s Ivy.
Oh, Cousin Debbie, and her unshed Precious Moments cubic zirconia tears, who probably had a hell of a time trying to explain why Unfrozen Caveman Husband wasn’t there at her sister Jessica’s seder in South Orange this week. (“There was this actor, and he sang a Christina Aguilera song on the sidewalk … ) Even though it’s Pesach, and leavened foods are forbidden, she’s gone to great effort to fix Carpet a grilled-cheese sandwich that she desperately needs him to praise, in order to vicariously absolve her of varied and many failings as a wife and mother. Carpet, however, refuses to allow that a sandwich is anything more than a sandwich. After all, it’s not his fault that Unfrozen Caveman Husband refused to return Cousin Debbie’s calls in which she will surely, in a faux-measured voice, guiltily rationalized what she had done and pleaded with him to come back. Has Carpet seen him at least? Yes, Carpet says, but not for much longer; the alchemical magic that turned him from a square of floor treatment into an almost-living boy needs both their loves to sustain it. Carpet is sick, fading like the Childlike Empress. “Persian!” Cousin Debbie shouts. “Kilim! Burlap! Tatami!” No, Carpet says, shaking his tassels gently. None of the new names can save him. Sometimes the things you most wish for are not to be touched.
To make everything all the more symbolically painful, it’s been ten years since the start of Cousin Debbie’s creative partnership with Tom, and the fact that everyone keeps throwing around words like “anniversary” and “old married couple” is too much for Debbie, who manages to keep her tiny sparkle-tears (which I have become convinced were digitally added later, perhaps by one of the Master Highlighters for recently deceased Painter of Light Thomas Kinkade) intact throughout the entire episode. This despite being unforgivably rude to an adorably innocent interviewer played by the 19-year-old Ben Rimalower and the cast of a high-school production of Three on a Match, Houston and Leavitt’s first big hit, leaving a bewildered Tom onstage to try to explain to a group of heartbroken future Long Wharf theater subscribers and their adorable teacher why his partner is such an utter, utter bitch. “Why didn’t you tell me?” Tom asks, when she admits that Unfrozen Caveman Husband has returned to his own time, where they still have answering machines you can listen to while passive-aggressively choosing not to pick up. Why indeed, Tom? Why do people still think trickle-down economics works? We’re living in a post-logic society, Tom. Feel free to spontaneously break into songologue.
And speaking of people who hold indefensible views, here’s Jo(h)n the gay Republican, bearing two steaming cups of freedom latte and a grave expression. There’s a problem, you see, and it’s not that he actively subscribes to the worldview of a group that sees him as a second-class citizen at best. It’s that he, too, has noticed the sparks between Tom and Token. Granted, from what we’ve seen it’s less a burning torch of desire than the tepid sputtering you get when you try to light a sparkler someone spilled beer on, but compared to the abstinence-only training film Tom and Jo(h)n have been enacting for NBC’s imaginary heterosexual audience for the last six weeks, it’s practically like being burnt at the stake, except the stake is a giant dildo. Tom, ever afraid of confrontation except when it comes to bossy bottom Derek, demurs, but Jo(h)n interrupts him: “Come, my dear, we are women. You blushed in his arms when you were dancing just now. And somewhere out there is a young Token, who I think will never be a basketball player. Good-bye, darling, and don’t worry about me, I’ll just stay here contentedly as my country slips into Fascism.” And thus does Tom climb over the Alps to Token’s waiting arms.
Guess who keeps half a million dollars in unmarked bills under the bar? Goran the Bull of the Lower East Side, that’s who! That’s not suspicious or indicative of some kind of unsavory business such as human trafficking at all! But how clever of Anjelica Huston to pick such a bartender; I mean, it’s not like she has X-ray vision that can see through solid matter or anything, right? Wrong! I fooled you. Of course she knew it was there. What she didn’t know was that he has a friend who might like to invest in the show as well, an “aging rock star” type who goes by the name of “Richard Cobra.” He brings Anjelica Huston to Irving Plaza where this “Mr. Cobra” is performing some type of aimless sound check, and immediately, her nostrils begin to quiver, sucking up the air in great, greedy gasps. She approaches with caution, well aware of the risks of meeting another of her kind, of being made known, but the gravitational pull is too strong. He turns his face toward her, his pale eyes and her dark ones suddenly ablaze with the flame of mutual recognition. I know this man, my friends, his name’s Inspector Javert!
JAVERT: Eileen, at last, we see each other plain / Or so it’s sung in this dirgelike refrain
ANJELICA HUSTON: Before you say another word, Javert / Before you tell the people what I am / Listen to me! There is something you must do!/My new show “Bombshell” at the Helen Hayes / A big ensemble to cast with speed / In mercy’s name, 6 mil is all I need / It’ll return, I pledge my word, it’ll return—
JAVERT: You must think me mad! / You said the same when Clear Day flopped / Immortal witches never change / Immortals like vous…
And so forth. Anyway, he gives her the money, and she celebrates by inviting all the mean, nasty, rapidly aging producers who didn’t believe in her Vision to Goran’s bar, where she equips them with martinis and then ritualistically consigns their signed contracts to the unquenchable flames of her cauldron, and look, Smash, either you are making this way too easy for me, or you actually owe me residuals. I’ll let it go just this once, but next time, you’ll be hearing from my agent.
And then the producers all turn into rats, and this is made all the sweeter by the fact that Rebecca Duvall has finally been allowed out of Fidel Castro’s pleasure palace and will be returning to the show. Derek turns up at Karen’s house to uncharacteristically break the news to her, and also, to apologize for the way he treated her when they first met, specifically, how he made her come to his house and inappropriately tried to put the moves on her. It’s clear this has been making him uncomfortable for a while, and it’s really pretty decent of him all around.
Of course, Dev comes home just as Derek is leaving, and thanks to his own malignant rage at being passed over for a promotion in favor of Jason Alexander in Pretty Woman, and the fact that a New York Times reporter he has a crush on told him he should work for the White House (because yes, what the Obama administration needs to deliver its populist election message is an Oxford-educated Englishman with an Indian name that everyone in North Carolina will be convinced is Hindu for terrorist), combined with the fact that Karen told him that Derek sexually harassed her (a point that is debatable) allows Dev to feel entitled to beat the shit out of Derek. This is because Dev is an insecure fucking asshole who loves to make a big show of being supportive of his girlfriend’s career when it doesn’t cost anything, but the moment her personal trajectory impinges on him in any way, he completely loses his shit. Dev is the worst kind of sexist: He’s got the language of feminism, but none of the convictions.
Congratulations, Dev, the “fuck you” of the recap goes to you. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
No, seriously, because Uma Thurman’s spaceship is coming in through that door any minute and she doesn’t want any of your people germs on it. It’s in her rider.