I bought a cookie at the intermission of This Ain’t No Disco. Weirdly, I needed the sugar. For all the insistent, glitter-ball-bedecked, in-your-face-sleazy-sexy exuberance of the new rock opera by Peter Yanowitz and Hedwig and the Angry Inch–creator Stephen Trask, halfway through the show I simply felt tired. I felt like I was watching the hyperactive love child of a coked-up threeway by Moulin Rouge, Rent, and a leisure suit. Which is to say that while there’s always plenty to look at in this rather scattershot paean to the New York of Studio 54 and the Mudd Club — from the panoply of old signage covering the hulking scaffolding of Jason Sherwood’s set (GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS! XXX PORNO HITS! OPEN 24 HOURS!) to the truly startling array of tight abs and tiny track shorts — there’s seldom much of substance to hold onto. And despite a host of strongly sung performances, what’s there often feels flattened by a high-energy but unmemorable score and a storyline anchored by cliché.
Like Rent, This Ain’t No Disco wants to introduce us to a youthful swath of La Vie Boheme and gradually bind our sympathies up with them as they survive individual struggles by learning to depend on the love and support of their chosen family. But unlike Jonathan Larson’s 1990s fusion of Puccini and the East Village, Trask and Yanowitz’s musical struggles to get us invested in its cast of free spirits, or even to introduce them effectively. It took me until almost halfway through the show to stop referring to one of its main characters in my head as “the girl with the hat” (someone finally said her name out loud), and 15 minutes into the whole affair, I wasn’t quite sure who anyone was.
Well, anyone except Steve Rubell, the leering, coke-addled Studio 54 impresario who struts and swaggers above the crowds of wannabe party monsters, handpicking who gets in and who stays on the street: “Go home and shave, you’re hairy!” sings the deliciously over-the-top Theo Stockman as Rubell, “I shall decide whose shoes are wrong or right.” Stockman, shimmying and dipping like his spine’s been replaced with a Twizzler, all bleary eyes and preening Cheshire cat grin wrapped in sweaty polyester, is equal parts repulsive and delightful — a hot-mess king of hedonism perched on an increasingly unstable throne.
His performance — along with that of Chilina Kennedy as an opportunistic publicist named Binky and Will Connolly as an amusingly gnomic Warhol-analogue called simply “The Artist” — is both a highlight of the show and a signpost pointing at one of its major inconsistencies: In This Ain’t No Disco, the cartoons are infinitely more compelling than the real people. The Artist, Binky, and Rubell are all played by excellent actors that are clearly relishing the chance to flirt with legend and caricature. They stand out in all the glittery whirl, while the young artists who are supposed to be the heart of the show feel swept along in it, ironically bland despite the fact that they’re meant to be more deeply drawn. I think of it as Marx Brothers syndrome: Who cares about the earnest young lovers who generate the A-plot of all those movies when you could be watching Groucho, Chico, and Harpo? It’s not a problem when you came for the wise-cracks and the hijinks in the first place, but it is when the beautiful youths are actually supposed to be the ones at center stage.
These beautiful youths (they’re all very beautiful) include Chad (Peter LaPrade, with a farmer’s-market–fresh face and a blonde mop of Hobbit hair), Sammy (the enormous-voiced Samantha Marie Ware, who pushes her songs as far as they can go), Meesh (Krystina Alabado) and Landa/Landon (Lulu Fall). The last two are a devoted couple, coat-check girls at Studio 54 by night and “weird-ass sculptors” by day. Other than that, we don’t know much about them, except that they’re super-sweet and their relationship is apparently rock solid. When Landa eventually turns to Meesh and asks to be called Landon — “I think that I’m … I’m a guy” — Meesh replies simply with, “Yeah, I know,” and the lovers share a pleasantly generic duet about how, no matter what, “the best part of the night / is going home with you.” (They’ve also got a number called “Baryshnikov’s Coat,” in which they play dress-up with the swanky trappings various celebs have left at their coat-check — a fun concept that really should generate better song.) Landon and Meesh are accepting, nurturing, never angry, always making-it-work. Which is nice and all, but also makes them feel less like full people than a cheerful Bohemian ideal: the obligatory lovely humans that come attached to a dreamy Tribeca loft space where Chad and Sammy, our more beleaguered heroes, will eventually crash.
And crash they both do, after individual highs. Chad, who has run away from a homophobic father in Queens and is working as a scantily clad busboy at Studio 54 when we first meet him, gets talent-spotted (well, really just pretty-face–spotted) by the on-the-make Binky, who promises him a new life as a Banksy-like street artist called “Rake.” Chad has brief doubts — “I painted my high tops, and I can barely sketch” — but is naïvely caught up in Binky’s promises of glory. Kennedy, in a series of increasingly hilarious wigs by Mike Potter, makes the fast-talking agent into a kind of Max Bialystok–meets–Joan Rivers. She’s a cockroach in lipstick — she’ll survive anything — and her “Vogue”-like power-solo “I’m Not Done Yet” is one of the musical highlights of the show. (It’s also one of the only songs that feels in real stylistic conversation with bands like Talking Heads, who helped define one of the scenes Trask and Yanowitz are interested in, not to mention providing their musical with its title. Though the play hops back and forth between glitzy, blow-happy uptown and grungy, disco-disdaining downtown, it’s often hard to keep track of which is which.)
Propelled by Binky, Chad’s ascent and his inevitable flop occupy the play’s first act, which culminates in a harebrained publicity stunt that leaves Rake’s artistic career dead on the vine and Chad himself humiliated and broke, back in seedy hotels turning tricks for cash. Act Two begins with him lamenting his short-lived fame — “I’m a loser with nothing left to lose” — in a song where the title, “Fifteen Minutes Later,” is the cleverest thing about it.
That’s a lot of plot (and the show’s only halfway done), but the problem is that we don’t care much about any of it. Chad’s backstory — the running away, the turning tricks, the doing lines of coke with Steve Rubell, the somehow still looking like a Georgia peach despite all of it — doesn’t feel particularly real. It’s a collection of hackneyed, faux-gritty building blocks assembled into a basic musical-theater hero with a basic musical-theater problem: “Where do I belong?” And despite her punk attire and magnificent pipes, Sammy is equally weighed down by old devices — and ones that feel both trite and a little icky to employ in order to add instant depth to a character. She’s a 22-year-old single mother whose son is the product of rape (during high school, by her mother’s boyfriend). She cuts herself to feel like she’s “in control” and she’s torn between her artistic aspirations and her loyalty to her son, an actual little kid in patterned PJs (Antonio Watson) who shows up every now and again to coo variations on “I love you, Mommy,” thereby helping the show’s creators to make shameless grabs at our heartstrings. The writers have relied on traumas that are actually just tropes. We can’t see much contour in these characters, but we know their outlines all too well.
Sammy, who can actually sing, gets her own fairy godmother in the form of The Artist, whose attention carries more clout than Binky’s pipe dreams. “You dazzle me, I wanna make a record with you,” murmurs the enigmatic trendsetter from behind his dark glasses and white shock of hair, after he hears Sammy do a bit of punky spoken word, “Come to Chelsea … I have a space I call the Wherehouse there. It’s where I do my thing.” The diminutive Connolly — who underplays everything marvelously, folding his hands across his black-turtlenecked chest like a Renaissance painting — is far more riveting than a send-up of Andy Warhol has any right to be. He’s interesting enough to watch that you still want to be on his side even after The Artist dangles diet pills in front of Sammy, whose anxiety is rising along with her musical star and who’s clearly headed for burnout. And he’s a strong enough performer to carry off the show’s penultimate song, “One Night, Terpsichore,” an anthem to life’s balance of light and shadow and to the act of forging one’s creative persona in the ugly furnace of the world. It’s a song that might have sunk a less charismatic actor, since it asks The Artist to vault from engaging caricature to human-being-with-a-past (“I was a shy boy, poor, from a steel town … ”) and then to holy prophet of the musical’s message in a matter of a few crescendos. But Connelly makes it work by balancing out the music’s purple flights with admirable poise. I wish Tresnjak had allowed The Artist to wait to remove his signature glasses, those little soul-hiding black mirrors, until this climactic number, but sadly that crucial gesture had been used up long before.
Overall — and perhaps unsurprisingly for a show that, despite its title, mostly is a disco — Tresnjak’s production sacrifices the potential effectiveness of small moments to a heady dependence on flashing lights and forward motion. It adheres to the Baz Luhrmann school of musical theater: More, more, more, again, again, again. In celebrations of decadence, it can often feel like we aren’t being allowed to breathe, but pumping the brakes every now and again gives us an opportunity to commit to something, to stop spinning long enough to care. I was thrilled for just a moment when I thought that the show might actually end on an uncharacteristically quiet note — just a scene of sleepy, early-morning domesticity. But Tresnjak jams these final moments right up against the bows, barely allowing the stillness to register before the whole smiling cast is back on stage belting, in that weird way some musicals have where even the villain (here, the hypocritical D.A. who topples Rubell for tax fraud) gets to stand hand-in-hand with the ensemble, delivering sunny lyrics like “Love is a happening! Life is a happening! Art is a happening!”
The flatness of Trask and Yanowitz’s material is undoubtedly linked with its trade in nostalgia, which manufactures a 1979 New York that looks like a lot of fit, attractive young dancers in disco attire and a few gorgeous artist-types singing about life and love in an enormous loft. A far cry from Hedwig, this musical’s grit is all in the marketing copy, though perhaps I should grant it its high energy. At intermission, a middle-aged man next to me turned to the middle-aged man next to him, asking, “Were we that peppy?” His companion sighed wistfully: “It was the coke.”
This Ain’t No Disco is at the Atlantic Theater Company through August 12.