Invited dress. The phrase itself is full of whispery promise, like a long ago debutante ball where you had some sort of brief, doomed love affair with a uniformed cadet from some strange part of Texas, providing fodder for an entire series of melancholy short stories, one of which was optioned by Wes Anderson for a film he never made.
But as you and I and all our fellow theatrinarians know, the reality is quite different. Invited dress, to put it simply, is a performance of your show before you are ready to give it, to which you are compelled to invite your friends, colleagues, and anyone else you suspect may secretly wish you harm, to watch with delighted mock-sympathy as it slowly dawns on you that your leading man is horrifically miscast, your staging is completely dysfunctional, and you need to cut 45 minutes out of the second act. They will crowd the lobby afterwards, camped out at the table of free white wine you paid for in a desperate attempt to lull them into complacency and ask you horrible passive-aggressive shrink questions like, “Are you happy?” Then they will spread “buzz,” by aggressively seeking out every frenemy and underminer you have ever had, from the last director who didn’t cast you to the each of the three girls who slept with your boyfriend during that phase in college when you were pretending not to care about monogamy and say things like, “Obviously I’m in love with everyone involved. But … ” (Cue rueful smile.)
It’s enough to give anyone enormous, crazed, Olsen-twin marmoset eyes, just like Tom’s in the very first image of the episode. And they get even bigger and more tiny jungle simian when he realizes that it’s the day of the show, y’all, and he’s all alone in the theater! On the stage! And he is completely nude! And by nude, I mean we actually get to see Christian Borle’s naked tushy! Is that allowed on network television now? Oh, but never mind, like the entirety of The Bob Newhart Show, it’s just a nightmare. Go back to sleep, Tom, in your dove-grey sheets of loneliness that I am relatively sure have been left unchanged since the days of Jo(h)n the depressingly non-deviant Republican. But wait, Tom sniffs, what is that scent of pine-blossom and arsenic in the air?
AAAAHHHH!!!! IT’S ELLIS DAPPLEDAWN!!! DAPPLEDAWN!!!! Beside him in bed! Nude and prone as he has threatened to be since the mesospheric grange of Hephaestus first belched him into existence so many millennia ago! Tom screams, I scream, we all scream, Cousin Debbie runs into the bedroom, screaming about what is everybody screaming about, and she’s wearing … a studded sex harness! No, just kidding, she’s continuing her winning season combination of jewel-toned blazer and flattering side part. This is isn’t a dream, this is really happening, and it’s time to dress for the invited dress! So much time and so little do, and we’re treated to our second intimate shot of Christian Borle’s buttocks, this time clad in little stripey underdrawers, like a headless Mr. Smee.
But meanwhile, in a bed across town, somebody done got some, for here are Derek and Ivy, waking up together in her sunshine bed, and it isn’t a dream, not a dream after all! They did it after he showed up late to her birthday party, and he apologizes for actually sleeping over. Ivy puts on her expertly tailored bathrobe and tells him to stop being such a big girl’s blouse about it. These two, they are actually very sweet lovers together.
Where else is for lovers? Greenpoint is for lovers! Nothing like a romantic gondola ride down Newtown Creek, as a picturesque school of Adamdriverfish leap and frolic and masturbate nearby, the toxic sludge rendering a reasonable likeness of Miss Clavel from the Madeleine books in scar tissue on their torsos. Karen, sad little clump of acrylic yarn that someone put a statement blouse on Karen, in her continuing duties as barista/sex doll, has brought Master Jimmy his coffee. But! Master Jimmy doesn’t want any coffee, for Master Jimmy — who apparently has been moonlighting as a Vulture recapper, Mandy Patinkin, holla! — has been subsisting solely on a diet of Red Bull and Adderall for the past 72 hours. (Pro tip, if you dissolve the Adderall in the Red Bull, the carbonation gets into your bloodstream faster. I call it a “Sky Masterson.” Our time of day is the dark time.) He’s frantically writing seventeen million new songs and they have to be perfect for the stumble-through for Richard “Henry” Francis of the New York Manhattan Times-Union, because that’s the only way he can keep the vengeful and sex-starved King Derek from vengefully shifting the focus of the show from megastar in the making Katharine McPhee, who is the rightful focus of everything, ever, and anyone who says otherwise is just jealous of what she’s got in her, namely Jimmy’s hard little cherry-wood penile implant! Write a sentence that long, Philip Roth! Oh wait, you can’t, you retired. Shukert for the win! (Also, with as much coffee as Karen appears to drink, I am beginning to worry that she actually has some sort of auto-immune disorder that effects her energy levels. I mean, if that’s what she’s like with coffee, what the hell is she like without it? Is she actually dead? Is this actually a vampire show? Because if it is, they should probably put that in the press materials immediately.)
Moving away from the fevered recesses of Jimmy Collins’s speed-crazed mind (and a brief waking dream in which I became Judy Garland on the set of The Pirate), it’s time for the show. Everyone is very nervous. Tom is trembling like a Chihuahua, necessitating Cousin Debbie to grab his hand and firmly whisper their joint mantra: “Remember, this is all about me. Me, me, me.”
But even with these words of assurance, everything is going wrong, so wrong they might have to cancel the first preview! The sliding doors don’t open. Intermission is seven hours long. Eight-year-old Norma Jean went up on her lines, which means Anjelica Huston must take her out to the alley of the St. James to be ritually sacrificed on the stone altar of Daisy Eagan, and then scatter her still-warm entrails in the dumpster amongst the discarded frozen embryos Cameron Mackintosh was considering for Young Cosette.
Oh, and JFK accidentally ripped off all of Ivy’s clothes! She was totally nude up there! This is the most naked episode of prime-time television since the episode of Head of the Class where Mr. Moore directed that production of Hair that Elaine Stritch did not want him to put on because her son died in Vietnam. Token tells her not to worry, that for all those homos in the audience, even tatas as bodacious as hers are just a couple of extraneous lumps of flesh blocking their view of the outline of JFK’s pectoral muscles through his dress shirt, but Anjelica Huston loved it! She thinks they should do it in every performance, and says a bunch of things like “Nudity was a huge part of who Marilyn was” and “it makes you seem vulnerable” and a bunch of other high-minded sounding things designed to cover up the fact that even an immortal superbeing who sprang fully grown and Jil Sander pant-suited from her father’s head at the dawn of time still thinks playing Naked Barbies is the most fun thing ever. Plus, it’ll sell tickets.
Anyway, Ivy decides to think it over and see how she feels about it — does it make sense for the story? Should she think about cutting out carbs? This enrages Token, who is dead set against it, because nudity a) violates the tenets of modesty of the baptism he vicariously and secretly performed on her soul b) might help Tom, who he still blames for every misfortune that has ever befallen him and c) he was in Take Me Out and all anyone remembers was his penis. Um, not your penis token.
And the reason I am even mentioning this at all is in order to interrogate a metaphysical problem that has been building and building for me and which I can no longer ignore: On the show, Take Me Out exists. Take Me Out starred Daniel Sunjata, except in the world of Smash, Daniel Sunjata is a dramaturg named Peter Gilman. Patti is Patti and Liza is Liza, but Bernadette Peters is Leigh Conroy. So in the world of Smash, is there no Bernadette Peters? Is there some sort of caste system of who gets to play themselves, and who has to play an unrelated character? Is Bernadette upset that she doesn’t get to be Bernadette? And as we’re told that “Leigh Conroy” played Reno Sweeney in a major Broadway revival of Anything Goes, does that mean Patti LuPone played the Witch in the simultaneous original production of Into the Woods? Is Patti LuPone Bernadette Peters, and is “Leigh Conroy” Patti LuPone? Is the entire planet Earth a microscopic amoeba living in Anjelica Huston’s fingernail? Is the difference between a cow and a bean truly that a bean can begin an adventure?
Anyway, let’s amble a little ways down the astral plane of parallel universes to Hit List, where Derek, inspired by Midriff’s stellar (we’re told) performance of her new song, the glow of Richard “Henry” Francis’s weird hip old-man approval, and the run-through that Cousin Debbie told him to do, has dreamed up a new opening where Midriff shoots a gun into a strobe light, and it might be pretty good if they can just get rid of all those interpretive dance belts Slytherining their way around the stage! Jimmy, predictably, hates it, because he didn’t think of it and it pulls focus away from his ladylove Karen, and again, we know the only reason for this could be that Derek, a highly awarded and professional theater artist, is horribly, horribly jealous that Jimmy is getting to frottage himself against Madame Tussaud’s retired waxwork of Kate Jackson and Derek … isn’t. So we need a tie breaker. “Kyle Goblinweed,” booms SJOENE, blowing the three short blasts on a boat whistle one must learn in order to summon him his dungeon warren. “What do you think?”
What does Kyle Goblinweed think? Kyle Goblinweed? Kyle Goblinweed thinks … Derek is right! Master has presented Kyle with clothes!!! Kyle is a free elf! (At least, until Jimmy strips him in the night, douses him with kerosene, and sets him on fire.) “YOU FAGGOT!!!!” Jimmy screams. “YOU INCREDIBLE TREACHEROUS FUCKFROG!!!! You’re just jealous of what Karen and I have, even though I won’t tell her my real name, or why I don’t have a social security number!!!”
“It’s true,” Derek says. “To be fair, Jimmy Collins sounds made-up, like he’s some child star from the 1930s whose real name is like, Elwood Yablonsky Jr., but no social security number? That’s kind of fucked up.” And then Karen tells him he’s a jealous old man, and he’s only giving Midriff Karen’s songs because Karen wouldn’t sleep with him, and Midriff is like, “Excuse me, bitch? Because all that time I was working my ass off in conservatory I was dreaming of the day I could play the slutty, wisecracking maidservant to animate globs of moisturizer?” Midriff, congratulations, you have become my favorite character. And that’s that!
Back uptown, the preview is on, thanks to Cousin Debbie’s eleventh-hour solution of cutting down the intermission by hiring the surviving members of the Living Theater to undulate all over the audience members during the entr’acte, while whispering “Marlon Brando” over and over at an increasingly frenzied pitch and dismembering an effigy of Lee Strasberg in a kind of communitarian Bacchic harvest ritual, but with the rock n’ roll energy of the youth today. Will we see if Ivy’s Carpet (just back and slightly soiled from a stint on the floor of a dorm room at Bowdoin) matches the drapes? Yes! And No! And yes! A qualified yes! Except she doesn’t do it where it was before. She milks it, ripping the sheet away from her body so she’s totally naked when JFK rejects her. Her body is the one irresistible thing about her, until it isn’t. Ivy is a genius, and she’s going to be a star. That moment where Tom quietly pauses to watch her signing autographs at the stage door is one of my favorites of the entire series, and that includes Liza. I really, really love Ivy and Tom. (I also love how every gay man on this show considers Ivy his “best friend.” That’s a girl after my own heart.)
But alas, pardon my French, but even full blonde bush may not be enough to save our troubled Bombshell, the 7-jillion-dollar little musical that could. Richard “Henry” Francis has just published his piece, comparing it unfavorably to Hit List. Bombshell is the past, Hit List is the future (if by “future,” you mean whatever year Stomp opened) and Anjelica Huston has a nice new face to hurl a curse Martini in. Tom is also as furious as we’ve ever seen him that Cousin Debbie has been offering comfort to the enemy, even though she was just trying to give back and be a nice mentor to Kyle. No good deed goes unpunished, that’s the moral to everything ever. If it makes him feel better, this column is fully on Bombshell’s side. And I’m not even any under illusions that anybody wants to sleep with me.
And speaking of sleeping? There’s Derek, sitting on Ivy’s doorstep, like Mr. Big without the car and driver. Mr. Medium. And apparently, that’s big enough for her.
See you after intermission!