First off, the important stuff: Here for your convenience is a definitive ranking of the alt-theater posters on the wall at the Fringe offices. They are ranked from Least to Most Perfectly, Enervatingly Fringe-y.
9. The Masked Man at the Shore
8. Under the Knife
6. Things You Think When You Think You're Dying
5. Waiting for the Moon Train
4. Kendra & Kathy
3. The Altruistic Doppelganger
2. We Go to the Land of Mars
1. Yellow is the Color of the Sky
Always know that I am here for you, Vulture readers, with some highly specific service journalism. (Looking at it again, though, let's go ahead and flip five and four.) (Because "Waiting for the Moon Train" is pretty perfect.)
This week, we return to focusing on everyone's work lives — specifically their creative ambitions, and the inevitable thwarting of same. Each plot thread contains a surprising work-related element that merits the use of my most-hated enemy, the exclamation point:
Exhibit A: Billy and Julie's Fringe show overcomes a series of setbacks. It's pretty terrible!
Exhibit B: Marilyn's weaponized narcissism gets her a TV gig, but her love of Julie (!) moves her to take action that scuttles it!
Exhibit C: Denise and Nate get a subplot!
In those last two, characters come to realizations and make choices to change their respective situations. Billy and Julie, however, remain purely reactive — to a cease-and-desist letter, to the goading of a fellow Fringe performer — and thus, amid all that bobbing and weaving, gain no insight or agency.
In other words, the show's main characters behave like secondary characters, while the show's secondary characters take action like main characters do. You'd think I'd have some grand unified theory to explain this, some concrete notion of just what that structural inversion is doing, and why.
Reader, I do not.
It begins, as so many chronicles of crushed dreams do, in Times Square. Billy and Julie harass witless, Hamilton-fixated tourists at TKTS (a half-price same-day theater-ticket seller, for those of you who are not New Yorkers or Wednesday-matinee Red Hat Society matrons) to come to their Fringe show. On a flyer, Billy has faked an endorsement from one Lin-Manuel Miranda.
A tangent regarding bagel chains reminds us that these characters can be called upon to express strong opinions on any topic, and … TITLE CARD.
Marilyn has taken Billy and Julie out to an expensive lunch. There is a joke about Aviva Drescher and her leg, which I had to Google (the name, not the leg; I know what legs are), as I am not a Real Housewives person. There are several more RH jokes and cameos, so just know that any observations made about them in this space will not be operating at peak efficiency.
Case in point: Marilyn has taken them out to lunch not to celebrate their play, but to announce that she has been tapped to be a psych consultant on Real Housewives. Julie offers to help, at which Marilyn takes umbrage, and a fight is about to erupt when Billy neatly defuses the situation with a joke about Paula Abdul's pharmaceutical destiny. It's nice to see how the show has gotten markedly better at dramatizing the specific nature of its leads' relationship.
At the café, we learn that Denise has forced Billy to cast Matthew in the play. We also learn that Nate believes Lin-Manuel Miranda (or, as Matthew pronounces it, channeling every middle-aged Viognier-swilling book-club member in Scarsdale, "Leeeen-MonWHHHEL MeerrrrAHNda") swiped his fourth-grade book report "to make hip-hop accessible to Ben Brantley."
Lola storms out of the kitchen and, because Difficult People knows itself, gets three Paul Feig/Adam McKay–like runs at a joke. This bends the show's reality until it nearly snaps, but Lola's always been a joke-delivery vehicle, so I'm okay with it. She is informed that Restaurant Week is almost upon them, that most hated annual culinary rite during which your favorite place to grab a burger suddenly gets all "sashimi lollis" this and "veal cheek coulis" that.
At the RH offices, Marilyn's blithe and unshakable self-obsession convinces the casting director (who refers to her instead as "self-inclined," a wonderfully show-biz-tactful way of saying "asshole") that she'd make a perfect on-camera therapist for Countess Luann.
At a rehearsal for their play, Swiftical: The Musical, Billy and Julie are surprised to discover that they're nearly sold out, due to the fake Manuel endorsement. As they bask in their duplicity, they're served a cease-and-desist letter by Shake It Off, Inc. (T.Swift always struck me as more an LLC sort of gal, but whatever.)
While waiting at the Fringe offices to officially cancel their show, they come across Andrea Mumford (played by Philly's own Shannon DeVido). Upon hearing that her show is sold out, Julie and Billy lie that theirs is, too — and it's a Hamilton-like hip-hop musical about another president, Jimmy Carter. Andrea: "Hamilton was never a president."
At Julie's apartment, they ignore my beloved Arthur but unwittingly take his sage counsel to swap out the lyrics of Swiftical to reflect their new subject. ("We'll change John Mayer to Yasser Arafat.") This proves more difficult than expected, as the new lyrics reflect their obsessions (Sharon Gless, Suzanne Somers's sitcom compensation) much more than history as it happened. I like that the lyric mentioning Carter's second term is allowed to hang there, unaddressed.
Marilyn visits Julie's theater ("It's like the basement from Silence of the Lambs but you haven't lost weight yet!" — hello, second-best joke of the episode!) to announce her good Housewives fortune. This news upsets Julie, and leads to a very good line about Kiss Me, Kate that you should just go watch for yourself again, because BEST JOKE OF THE EPISODE.
Billy has come across a box of glitter-covered costumes that they feel compelled to shoehorn into the production. We're officially getting every signal that this thing is gonna be a turkey. That's Difficult People hedging its bets: The last-minute changes guarantee their show will stink, which means the episode won't have to tell us whether Billy and Julie are actually any good. Plucky and tenacious, yes. But good?
Marilyn tapes her therapy session with Countess LuAnn (whom I recognize as a Housewife only because she bears the look of a woman who spends a lot of time waiting to be apologized to), and promptly proves herself to be even more "self-inclined" than a Real Housewife. But it leads her to realize her misstep with Julie, and causes her to encourage the RH cast and crew to attend Julie and Billy's play.
Said play is a debacle, if Matthew's entrance in a Mr. Peanut suit is any indication. Ditto the first song: "I was a peanut farmer / I'm a Southern charmer / Makin' Palestine my valentine / Like Greg meeting Dharma." A pretty rough go, but I say this as a former theater critic who has seen and/or reviewed hundreds of Fringe shows: would watch.
Back in subplot land, Denise and Nate decide to bail on Restaurant Week and adopt a Connecticut baby, though I'm pretty sure there's at least a three-day waiting period. Maybe they're gonna exploit the Baby Show loophole.
Onstage, Matthew as Reagan sings in a creepy falsetto about ignoring AIDS (read: ignoring Billy and Julie as they dance merrily in a cow costume emblazoned with the word AIDS). Later, dressed as Gene Simmons and David Bowie, Billy and Julie rap exactly like Daveed Diggs, if Daveed Diggs were white and Jewish and knew nothing about history:
Billy: Gene Simmons, David Bowie, at your service to show
Julie: A lot of stuff about a president you hardly even know!
B: The ’70s were crazy! I got a ton of poon!
J: I drank Liz Taylor's lady juice right out of a cokespoooon!
B: Carter beat Gerald Ford and gave the White House solar panels!
J: Gave us ten new HBO channels, skateboarded with Andrew Rannells!
B: Why does this Southern Baptist matter?
J: What's he teachin' us sluts?
Matthew: That ignoring Carter's legacy is totally nuts!
All: Carter! You were a martyr! And you were smarter than other Carters! Like Aaron, Nick, Beyoncé, Nell, Lynda, Dixie, Graydon, well … Carter! Now we know about … YOU!
Okay, here are some things I love about this gloriously shabby, deliberately Guffman-esque dramaturgy:
1. The spotlights that half-ass-edly zoom across the stage, even after the music stops
2. Julie's David Bowie costume, which is more a "deranged Mrs. Slocombe" costume
3. Billy's hand gesture on "poon"
4. Billy's Simmons drag, which makes him look like an undead Slash
5. The fact that Julie's finishing move is RuPaul's "And may the best woman … win!" stance
6. Arthur's pained expressions
The show's arrant badness causes Countess LuAnn, who's in the audience with Marilyn and another Housewife she's feuding with, to settle said feud and get the hell out of there.
Julie and Billy seem surprised that the audience didn't "get" their shit show. Marilyn visits Julie backstage, and they share a nice moment — they're getting a lot more of those this season. Denise and Nate inform Matthew that they're adopting a baby, and he flees weeping, clad only in his tighty-whities, out into the bustling Theater District.
An outraged Lin-Manuel Miranda confronts Billy about the fake quote on the flyer, but is himself confronted by Nate. LMM abashedly apologizes for stealing Nate's idea, and gets a good bit of business about his two Tonys for Hamilton, which suggests this was shot within the last month or so, or that the writers made a very safe bet. But wait, didn't he win more than two Tonys? Maybe the Best Musical Tony goes to the producer and not the … you know what, never mind.
Outside of the theater, Arthur is supportive, because Arthur is Arthur. But so, surprisingly, is Andrea Mumford — who then immediately hits on Arthur. Because Arthur is Arthur.
The final shot follows Matthew as he gets his Birdman on, storming nearly naked through a cold and rainy Times Square. Props to Escola here: Even if he wasn't in his underpants and socks, and it wasn't raw and rainy out, walking through Times Square is always just a miserable thing to do.
A previous version of this recap misstated some of the lyrics from Billy and Julie's musical. Those lines have been corrected.