Nobody Loves You (at Second Stage Theatre through August 18)
In the last few years, I've begun to hear the phrase "theater-funny" used in contrast to "funny-funny"; "theater-funny," like "comedy hot," is a cold capo clamped onto your expectations, forcing them mercifully downward. The implication — and, in many cases, the reality — is that audiences, even fans of the form, do not attend a musical comedy to laugh. They laugh, of course, but only because their standards have been strategically lowered, and because they're so well-versed in the conventions of musical comedy, mere recognition of robotically anticipated "beats" is enough to achieve baseline diaphragm stimulus. (Sounds like you’re really getting your $80-to-$150's-worth, eh?)
That's why I'm very happy report that Nobody Loves You, a modest, lightweight, high-torque pop musical about the triumphant vulgarity of TV love competitions, is both theater-funny (in that it follows certain tropes to the letter) and funny-funny, in that we actually laugh, instead of doing that awful turn-and-cough routine that passes for laughter when you’re above 34th Street. No, we're not talking Mormon funny — Nobody isn't after any big, swollen taboos, after all — but genuinely funny, thanks to abundant wit from book-writer-and-lyricist Itamar Moses (the wordsmith-romantic of Bach at Leipzig and Completeness), crisp direction from Michelle Tattenbaum (whom we'll be seeing more of around town, I predict), and an airtight ensemble of regulars, up-and-comers and lesser-knowns, all of them united in a common goal: To surprise and delight in the here and now, not just frack dry wells for residual amusement.
Life on a Bachelor-oid, Big Brother-ish reality series doesn't sound like the most felicitous subject for a musical: Sure, it comes with built-in absurdity and sex, but the hazard of being instantly jejune is ever-present, and Nobody doesn't entirely avoid it. The story centers on Jeff (Bryan Fenkart), a curmudgeonly doctoral candidate chipping away at an eternal philosophy thesis. Suddenly and traumatically single, he enters himself on his ex's favorite show, a finding-love elimination challenge/humiliation rite called Nobody Loves You, which, in Jeff's eyes, represents everything that's wrong with the world. (He specializes in ontology, inquiry into the nature of existence — nothing offends him quite like fake "reality.") Plus, the show came between him and his girlfriend; now he's out to expose it from within. NLY's Machiavellian producer (Leslie Kritzer, showboating buoyantly in multiple roles) thinks inviting a hate-watcher into the mix is exactly what the show's sagging ratings need. Her over-educated, above-the-fray underling Jenny (Aleque Reid) isn't so sure, but sticks around long enough to become Jeff's off-camera love interest. (They bond, rather marvelously, in a song called "So Much to Hate," destined to become the prom spotlight dance at post-grad programs everywhere.)
Yes, hyper-authentic Jeff finds real love in a fake place — hey, d'ya think he'll screw it up somehow, find out he's not the untainted seer he thought he was, and be called upon to redeem himself? The love story is always on the razor's edge of insufferable, but it doesn't tip over, mostly because Moses — whose impressive rhymes run like the Cyclone, atop the catchy pop scaffolding of Gaby Alter's melodies — is one of those rare writers who prefers characters who operate near the top of their intelligence; even his idiots have an edge and angle.
And oh, his idiots! Such a lovely grotesquerie, it's hard to single any out: Heath Calvert's masterfully vapid Byron, the show's latex host, whose every mannequin-eyed stare and honeyed bit of blather is a symphony of idiocy; Lauren Molina's Megan, a sexed-up fame monster with a drinking problem; and any of the great Rory O'Malley’s trio of numb-nutses. He steals the show with a song comprised of hashtag jokes — a feat I wouldn't have thought possible if I'd seen it on paper, but which O'Malley sells us effortlessly. In fact, most of Nobody Loves You is like that: an effortless sell. (A place where a little more effort might be welcome: sound-design and vocal direction — the blends and harmonies are sometimes jangly and flat, and the amplification only seems to be exacerbating the discord.) As summer diversions go, this is a 90-minute season pass you can live with, laugh with, and not feel guilty about afterwards.
The Castle (at the Atlantic Stage 2 through August 4)
After their scorching, flawless Victory two seasons ago, the Potomac Theatre Project returns with another underperformed Howard Barker classic, The Castle. This crowded, anarchic, moderately injurious comedy follows a group of crusaders home to a radically changed England where the women have abolished the church, private property, and the tyranny of the cock. (Though some find ways to dose recreationally, on the sly.) The great Jan Maxwell toplines once again as Skinner, a man-hating hedge witch seething at the sight of a giant castle going up on the hill. The men are hell-bent on reasserting themselves, driven by twit-chieftain Stucley (a shiver-lipped David Barlow), iron-fisted lummox Batter (Steven Dykes, the soul of casual brutality), and a mysterious prisoner/guest from the Holy Land, the brilliant Muslim architect Krak (Quentin Mare), who notes darkly, even as he hands over his blueprints: "A castle is not a house." Barker's richly impudent language — hilarious and heatedly unhinged from time, space and sanity — is both his glory and the chief impediment to American productions of his work. ("Where's cunt's geometry?" wonders one flummoxed gent, longing for math. "The thing has got no angles!") Barker likes to colonize and desecrate tender moments in history, usually in the immediate collapse of a worldview; he builds revolting, self-replicating new structures in the ruins: Nothing can stop modernity, mock and resist and shit-smear it how we may. The Castle doesn’t have quite the snap and punk punch of Victory, and the design and direction could be just a hair more assertive — the actors need just a bit more atmosphere on stage to swim in. Still: No other Stateside company comprehends and incarnates his Theater of Catastrophe with the energy and focus of PTP — though the fact that no other Stateside company is really trying to is something of a crime. Crimes can't really be redressed in Barker, but you'd do your soul a world of good by going.
rogerandtom (at HERE's mainstage through August 24)
Julien Schwab's crafty, poignant bottled playlet is a small, cool gem in the hot miasma of summer: Tom has written a play — the play we're watching — and Tom's sister Penny, the peacemaker, is trying to get their brother Roger to show up and end his long estrangement from Tom. Roger's in the audience with us, and he's not amused by metatheater. From there, it's down the rabbit-hole, and if the hole kinda bends back on itself, that's part of the point — family as an endless emotional recursion, where the lines between love, playacting and self-deception dissolve entirely.