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Smash Recap: The Song of Bernadette

SMASH -- "The Parents" Episode 209 -- Pictured: Krysta Rodriguez as Ana Vargas -- (Photo by: Will Hart/NBC)

Do you remember the first time your parents came to visit you at your BFA program? If not, I do, so allow me to lead you through a sense memory that will allow you to relive these long-buried traumas and eventually go insane from them, just like Marilyn. You are sitting in a darkened black box theater next to your visibly nervous parents, who have dressed in their “New Yorkiest” outfits for the occasion. Your mother is eyeing the smattering of celebrity parents — the lady who used to play the mom on that sitcom, the father who was in all those Woody Allen movies in the seventies — with a curious mixture of awe and resentment; your father is studying the dog-eared outdated subway map he brought with him and trying to blend in.

One of your teachers appears on the stage, such as it is, perched casually on a backless stool. His posture is excellent, he wears expensive-looking yet comfortable clothes, his voice is beautifully modulated as he describes the noble journey upon which you and your classmates are embarking. He lists the names of illustrious alumni, of the dizzyingly famous guest teachers with whom you will have the opportunity to study. A tour of the facility is offered. Your parents are relaxed, reassured.

Then they come to watch a class demonstration, watch you spend two hours and (if you’re counting these things) approximately $1,200 moaning and writhing and shouting gibberish like a lunatic in some Victorian asylum, and their faces suddenly take on the expression that Dylan Baker, playing Karen’s father, wore in virtually every scene he was in: that of an angry, senile old man, who can’t understand why there are people trapped inside that glass box in the solarium, or why the Jamaican nurse doesn’t answer to his dead wife’s name, and he just needs five dollars so the Cossacks will let him go to the bathroom, why don’t you want him to go to the bathroom? (And which begs the question, who are the senile old Jews of tomorrow going to atavistically fear are on their way to murder them in their beds? For me, well, I’m beginning to imagine that my own dementia pathways may ultimately have to do with this show. Like, 60 years from now, I’ll be sitting in a wheelchair wailing “Carpet! Carpet! Carpet!” and my kids will be like, “what are you talking about, Ma, the carpet’s fine,” and I’ll sob, “you don’t understand, you don’t understand” and they will look at me with pity until they see the stream of urine dribbling out from the bottom of my pant leg and they will turn from me in disgust.)

Eventually, your parents’ faces recovered, began to take on the smooth mask of the Scientologist, the look that says: “I am in for hundreds of thousands of dollars to something pretty fucking dubious, and I better start believing in it with all my heart.” But it’s too late. You’ve seen what’s under there, and you know, that unless you someday find yourself ascending the steps of the Kodak Theater to accept a kiss and a statuette from the likes of Jack Nicholson himself, your parents are always, deep down, going to be preeetttty skeptical of whatever you’re doing.

That’s basically what this episode is about. And that’s my recap!

No, psych! Obviously there’s about 5 trillion words more. But first a little housekeeping: We will be continuing as Smash moves to Saturdays, this Saturday! So work it into your Sunday morning newspaper reading/hangover nursing/sex swing cleaning schedule, okay, guys? Okay.

Well, we better start with (sigh) Karen, who is busting out the Café Busto in order to fuel yet more hours of shirtless furry sex with Jimmy the Allegedly Reforming Jerk, except oops! Her dad’s at the door! Her actual, biological father, all the way from Iowa? Didn’t she remember he was coming? Didn’t her mother call her six times over the last three days to remind her? Didn’t he call her as soon as he landed, and then again when he got into a cab, and then her mother called again ten minutes after that to tell her “Daddy got in a cab, and he’s bringing a manila envelope with the rest of your tax stuff, and don’t worry if you forgot to get that cheese I told you to get that he likes, he’ll live.”

This is the first of many times I’ll say it this episode: I do not understand Gentiles. For example, I genuinely do not understand why it’s so imperative to make sure Daddy doesn’t run into Jimmy. I mean, I get maybe not wanting to tell him all about the sexing and things, but couldn’t she say: “Daddy, this is my friend Jimmy, who is staying with us for a couple of days because his roof is leaking,” or “Daddy, this is Jimmy who is in the show with me; we rehearsed late and the G wasn’t running so he crashed here last night,” or “Daddy, this is my friend Jimmy, and I am an adult woman and it’s none of your business what happens inside my vagina.” Except, apparently, it is, because while Jimmy is forced to hustle out the fire escape (perhaps to subliminally prepare us for the West Side Story remake introducing Katharine McPhee I desperately hope that global warming will save us from) Karen is perfectly happy to greet her father at the door wearing no pants, or as far as I know, underpants. Hmmm. In the immortal words of Principal Ed Rooney: “so that’s how it is in their family.”

Speaking of family, Tom, a person so non-confrontational he makes Neville Chamberlain look like Patti LuPone, has neglected to tell Ivy that the role of her mother is going to be played by … TA-DA! Cole Escola as Bernadette Peters as Bernadette Peters as Leigh Conroy!!!!! Surprise, darling! And, oh my God, I just … Bernadette is really going full Bernadette for this, and it’s just so startling, and so immensely wonderful to see that much Bernadette on a TV screen, and I have a dream that one day, on the red hills of Georgia, when Obamination and his band of Islamofascist Marxist radicals force the God-fearing, freedom-loving heterosexuals of America into gay reeducation camps, the result will be that all the brotastic comedy aficionados will have to trade in their Christopher Walken impressions for Bernadette Peters ones.

Ivy, bless her, tries to be a good sport about it, even though her mother didn’t show up for the opening night of Liaisons: Live From Michigan, It’s the Elaine Stritch Intensive Care Unit. Unfortunately, Ivy’s version of being a good sport is playing all their book scenes together — book scenes! I know! — in the voice of Eric Cartman when he’s trying to get something out of Kyle, which just in this moment I realized is virtually identical to Dainty June bidding farewell to her dear cow Caroline. Seriously, it’s like they’re pretending to be the Boxcar Children or something. “My God,” says Gore Vidal, “I’ve seen more emotion coming out of Robert McNamara’s ossuary,” so Tom is forced to employ devious tricks, as suggested by Cousin Debbie (who spends most of the episode writing self-flagellating e-mails to Scott Jim Oskar Ellis Nicola Eustis about how she’s still so sorry that she was important enough to destroy his career, and he must still be so mad at her that she’s so much richer and more famous than he is and God, can he ever forgive her?), like prompting Bernadette Peters to tell that hilarious story about Ivy having been so obese as a child that when she, Bernadette, was playing Maria in The Sound of Music, the casting director would only consider Ivy for Kurt, but then she was ultimately cast as Herr Zeller, because she was also balding. But then Ivy got a wig! And she got very thin, because she became severely anorexic and started cutting herself, right after her first boyfriend dumped her for the girl at theater camp who was playing Sarah Brown to Ivy’s Big Julie? What was her name, Laura Benanti? That’s right, and it was so funny because that was right around the time that Leigh Conroy won her seventh Tony at age 27 and actually thanked Laura Benanti in her acceptance speech for being “better than a real daughter to me,” while Ivy was being force-fed through a tube at the Renfrew Clinic! Ha, ha, ha, isn’t that a hoot?

Whatever it is, it’s good for business, because who doesn’t love a mother-daughter story? “The Kardashians of Broadway”: That’s what the headline across the front page of the "Arts & Leisure" section will read, except oops, Richard “Henry” Francis, the confusing straight theater editor, is going to fob the story off on some poor freelancer instead, because he’d like to keep open the possibility of boning Anjelica Huston after the Manhattan New York Public Workshop Theater Club fund-raiser, which, given the multi-dimensional vortex one would have to traverse in order for that to happen, would be officially classified as a “junket” by the Times and therefore a direct violation of their ethics code. (Thank God this magazine has no such rules about its subjects, because the deep sensual connection Sean Hayes and I have is once-in-a-lifetime and I don’t think I can give it up.)

So yes, to the fund-raiser, which Karen, weirdly, has not thought to invite her father to, until Derek is like, “what the hell is the matter with you?” and I’ll say it again: I do not understand Gentiles or their relationships with their families. Why is this allowed? Not that Daddy Cartwright is too excited about the whole thing. I mean, why did Karen leave Bombshell to go be in this weird downtown sex cult play in a theater that only has single stall bathrooms? Could it have been Derek’s stupid leather jacket he saw disappearing over the fire escape that morning, like an erection in the face of a doll collection? For Pete’s sake, he spent two hundred dollars on that purity ring he hasn’t seen Karen wearing once since he got to this goddamn city full of Jews! He’s her father, her chastity is supposed to belong to him and him alone, until the time upon which he will surgically remove it without anaesthesia or consent and deliver it to her husband in an insulated lunch bag for safekeeping! (What if Todd Solondz had written Smash? Can we make that a hashtag?)

Or maybe he just doesn’t really want to hear her sing “Broadway Here I Come” again. I love that song, really. And you all know that while I am not a big fan of the songstressing of Katharine McPhee, I’ve never really doubted that in her way, she is a good singer. But oy. I don’t know what they did in the mix studio on this, but she’s suddenly got all the tonal vibrancy of the synthesizer in theme song to Doogie Howser M.D. No, for once, the real star of the show is Midriff, performing on one of those ribbon slings that hangs from the ceiling, while a couple of nonspeaking townspeople in cornrows and pleather bodysuits interpretively contort themselves in the finest dance performance the 2003 Burning Man has to offer. “Incredible,” marvels Richard “Henry” Francis of the New York Times, the only newspaper in the world that still wields the power to make or break the career of an emerging theater artist. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Next you’ll be telling me white people live in Brooklyn!” Karen wanly seethes while her father carefully inspects her breasts to make sure she’s still breathing, but there’s nothing she can do: Midriff is getting a promotion, and the best way is for S-JOENE to emotionally blackmail Cousin Debbie into, that’s right! Dramaturgy!!! Sing, muse, for in this mortal life we are all ouroboroi, forever condemned to swallow our own tail. And speaking of swallowing tail, are we really supposed to accept that Cousin Debbie is going to hook up with Jesse L. Martin and not Daniel Sunjata? That can’t possible be right, can it? I mean, maybe this is all just setting up a love triangle, where she has to go to the Berkshires for hard nude dramaturgy lessons and then S-JOENE is furious at her again for making the obvious choice — Mike Nichols! Daniel Sunjata! — but look, I’ve been burned before by this show. Time will tell, I guess.

Anyway, there is something even more important going on behind the scenes besides various things we all want to do to the dramaturg. Perhaps you’ve noticed that strange young vampire lingering homoerotically at the stage door of the New York Manhattan Public Workshop Theater Club? That’s Lothar of the Village People, a fine young cannibal who leant Jimmy $8,000 for “relocation” purposes a while back, because that’s what drug dealers do when you stop working for them, as an act of goodwill. It’s kind of like the Peace Corps. Anyway, he needs Jimmy to pay him back, now, please, or else … well, it’s unclear what else, but look, you don’t want to wind up like Shia LeBeouf, do you now, Jimmy? Jimmy, naturally, immediately offers up Kyle Goblinweed as a child slave-bride, but Lothar of the Village People isn’t falling for that one. The 25 cents a pop the shepherd boys pay to throw rocks and manure at Crutchy while he’s chained to a pole in the yard is barely enough to keep that poor cripple in oats and clown collars, and that other one Jimmy gave him, Pepper? She was so mouthy he had to pay a brothel to take her, and even then only after he cut out her tongue. So Jimmy has to go to Plan B, which is to demand an “advance” on his “money.” S-JOENE laughs in his face and is like, “Fool, I’m the artistic director and even my salary is just whatever they can get on Kickstarter” so Jimmy is then forced to go to Plan C, which is to lure promising young starlet/coat check girl Cole Escola away from his post so that he can steal the watch Trey MacDougals is about to present Charlotte York as proof of his honorable intentions toward her.

And I have to say, seeing Cole Escola in his double role this episode is blowing my mind. It’s like that part at the end of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, where the actual Pee-Wee Herman (who is, in fact, not an actual person named Pee-Wee Herman) pages the pretend Mr. Herman to the front desk in a pretend movie about another movie, like one of those pictures within a picture within a picture that goes on forever and eventually makes you insane, although it’s possible I am actually insane. Book launches will do that to you (just buy it already, will you? There are starving children in Africa who need this Temazepam more than I do).  

Anyway, Derek discovers the attempted theft, and is like, why don’t you just ask me? I literally have millions and millions of dollars! So that’s all saved, and Jimmy not only manages to continue to hide his secret identity as Dick Whitman, he even gets a free bag of coke or heroin or angel dust or something. What a sport, this Lothar is! And Daddy Cartwright is very relieved to know that it’s actually Jimmy that Karen is fucking, because what father wouldn’t rather have his daughter dating an emotionally and possibly abusive former drug dealer than a financially stable, highly successful man who happens to be a little too old for her? Why should Karen start her life as an old man’s drudge, am I right, Cousin Violet?

And in a genuinely heartwarming parental moment: Megan Hilty and Bernadette Peters singing an absolutely gorgeous Shaiman-Wittman duet, “I’ll Hang the Moon,” about all the ways that parents and children fail each other, but still keep on trying. Now, this, this is what Broadway can be. Not undulating circus performers, not tinny pop singers attempting to achieve through melisma what they can’t possibly hope to through acting. This is it. I’m listening to it again right now as I type these words, tears streaming down my face as I watch the sun rise over Stuyvesant Town. Mom, Dad, wherever you are, I hope you’re proud of me.

Photo: Will Hart/NBC