Smash Recap: The Play’s the Thing


Season 1 Episode 1
SMASH -- Pilot -- Pictured: Megan Hilty as Ivy Lynn


Season 1 Episode 1
Photo: Will Hart/NBCUniversal, Inc.

Smash! It’s here!!! It’s finally here!!!! I am going to add a few more exclamation points to add to the theatricality of my excitement!!! It’s the show you’ve been hearing is going to single-handedly save Broadway from the Philistines and NBC from mediocrity. The show that will put America’s Favorite Older Cousin Debra Messing back where she belongs, on the screens and the hearts of homosexualists worldwide, and will at last confer on “newcomer” Katharine McPhee the kind of stardom she has been begging us to bequeath upon her since season five of American Idol, when she came in second to Newt Gingrich. Will it be the greatest, and most idealized look at a moribund American institution since The West Wing? Or will it be a thinly veiled Glee ripoff that stars no one you guiltily want to have sex with? There’s only one way to find out, and that’s by turning on our TVs and watching it in unison at the proscribed time every week, commercials included. Right, NBC?

The episode opens with a long shot of Kat McPhee, singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” against an infinite backdrop of starry, starry stars, while wearing silver toe shoes and a sparkly little-girl dress with a high-neck and puffed sleeves, which is disconcerting to see on someone who is not 6 years old and/or Michelle Williams. But wait, this is just her imagination! In real life, she’s just another aspiring actress in a dingy rehearsal studio, auditioning in front of a very uninterested group of casting directors, including a mannish woman who is talking on the phone! While she’s singing! One minute in, Smash has already taught us two very important lessons: (a) that’s it’s not such a good idea in an Broadway audition to wanly perform the signature song of a legendary gay icon who had more charisma in a single crumb of Seconal affixed to the inside wall of her nostril than you do in your whole gawky body and (b) the headscape of our lead character is basically a Joseph Cornell box, absent any hint of psychosexual tension.

Next to audition is a girl named Ivy, who is blonde and bouncy in every way, and the mannish woman checks out Ivy’s ass as she bends over, indicating that in Hollywood, a steely-grey pixie cut is still meant to signify exactly what you suspected it might. Kat — whose name is Karen in this, and will be referred to as such — is summarily dismissed.

Over in Successful Winnerland, represented here, debatably, by Riverside Drive, Cousin Debbie (who plays a character named Julia, but whom I will only refer to Cousin Debbie) and a man who is Not Sean Hayes (and whom I will call Tom, as that is his name) are hanging out in Tom’s beautiful kitchen, where Tom’s beautiful new assistant Ellis has thoughtfully collected his mail, prepared a welcome-home feast of mac and cheese, and meticulously arranged his teabags in a single drawer. Ellis has the lambent eyes and colorfully preppy dress sense of one of those Sylvanian Family woodland creatures that my sister and I spent much of the early nineties arranging according to species in their mountain cabin, while keeping meticulous records of their personal information in a special notebook (which my mother confiscated when she figured out we’d got the idea of “registering” them from Schindler’s List). Cousin Debbie, for reasons not yet made clear to us, hates him on sight. Also, she thinks he is straight. I think Ellis is clearly ambisexual, which in this case means his sexuality is defined by his ambition. Time will out, but right now it’s not sexposition time, it’s exposition time! 

Cousin Debbie reads in the paper that a high-profile revival of My Fair Lady has fallen through and takes this opportunity to give us our first official State of the American Theater Address: “Revivals, and movies,” she bemoans. “Why doesn’t anyone do new musicals anymore? New book. New songs. We write new musicals.” Tom points out that they are currently taking a break, and from the snippy tone of his voice it seems like said break was mandated by Cousin Debbie. No!!! No, Cousin Debbie! Come back from your break and save us from the unholy specter of Geri Halliwell as Eliza Doolittle!!  And let me borrow your enormous knitted scarf that mysteriously matches both your hair and your skin tone! Aunt Carol said you were supposed to be nice to me!

Naughty Ellis, too busy with tea arranging and choosing ambiguously sexual neckware to put his toys away, has carelessly left out a book of Tom’s about Marilyn Monroe, horrors! He apologizes. Nonsense, says Tom, house-sitting for someone means you’re allowed to read their books … and have sex in their bed, is the subtext, as he treats us to the second conspicuous same-sex ass-ogle of the episode. Ellis thinks Marilyn would make a good musical. Tom likes the idea, because he likes anything that comes out or goes in to Ellis’s trembling forest baby mouth, but Cousin Debbie is all like, “Been there, done that, got the bedazzled baby-tee, I hate you, go sit at the kids’ table with the 3-year-olds while I slow dance with Jeffrey Tabachnik.” “You could do a baseball number,” Tom says. Shoeless Joe, it rhymes with Monroe!

Meanwhile, in a café across town, Karen is serving coffee to a very familiar-looking man, and I rack my brain, bite my lip, and perform other self-harming/self-soothing techniques until an image floats into my brain of him in a turban and eyeliner, listening with furrowed brow as known middle-aged-woman Sarah Jessica Parker obsesses over whether or not to tell her even older husband (who is on his third wife, P.S.) that she had briefly kind-of accidentally kissed another boy at sleep-away camp, because oh my God, is he going to be so mad? He’s going to be so mad! That’s right, it’s Carrie Bradshaw’s manservant from SATC2, and here he is as Karen’s adorable English boyfriend Dev, who is endlessly supportive of her dreams and tells her she is thin and then makes her pause her waitressy toiling so he can lovingly spoon dessert into her upturned baby-bird mouth. Oh, he is perfect! Oh, we are going to be so sad when she cheats on him/dumps him for the sake of her career!

I know we’re all over people talking about shows that are set in New York and being all: “Bullshit! They could never afford that apartment! This show is a mendacious piece of treachery that will only bring more cupcake places, which in turn will lead to more chain stores, which will lead to me being priced out of my dishwasher-less hovel and left to sleep on the streets, or worse, forced to move to Long Island City!” I would just like to say that judging by Cousin Debbie’s townhouse (not to mention all those nubby earth-toned sweater caftans, which don’t come cheap), Cousin Debbie is clearly doing quite well for herself.  Inhabiting the impressively wise kitchen are the evidence of Cousin Debbie’s home life about whom we will probably be expected to care: a teenage son she has sculpted from a remnant of shag carpet; and her frozen husband product, who was incubated from a cluster of cells for the sole purpose of playing befuddled and irrelevant fathers in Tide commercials. Unfrozen Caveman Husband is making a salad, which is possibly the most obviously resentful act known to humankind. Cousin Debbie mentions the idea of a musical about Marilyn Monroe, and Carpet telegraphs his teenage rebellion by pretending he doesn’t know who or what a Marilyn Monroe is. Believe me, if any son of mine ever pulled that kind of shit, that kid would be packed off to gay reeducation camp faster than you can click your heels together three times and say: “Back in St. Olaf.” Frozen Dad pauses angry salad-making to remind Cousin Debbie that she is supposed to be taking a break, because they are supposed to be adopting a baby this year, and if you so much as breathe the words “Bernadette Peters” to a Chinese adoption official they will drown you in a wok filled with boiling corn oil, and also, she promised not to have any more ideas ever because it’s his turn, goddammit, and he has needs, too, and this goddamn fucking salad is finished, and she forgot to get pine nuts, so he just hopes she’s happy, even though she and her stupid brain ruin everything! Cousin Debbie, please don’t be conflicted about your success!

Tom is in the wings at his show, Heaven and Earth, waiting to say hello to his BFF, Ivy, who is in the chorus, wearing a giant feathered tail. He also runs into a shirtless chorus boy who he clearly doesn’t recognize, since the last time he saw him they were both masked in Tom’s personal walk-in closet/sex-dungeon and/or in the coke line at the Duplex. Backstage, Ivy finds out that she didn’t get the part she auditioned for earlier, and symbolically tears her showgirl wig in fury. I am now officially Team Ivy. She just wants a part, she quavers to Tom, a real part. If only Tom was writing a musical with a leading role for a self-destructive blonde with big boobs and a tremulous grasp on her own self worth!

WELL, WHAT DO YOU KNOW???? Tom and Cousin Debbie are cutting a demo for Marilyn! The Musical. That was fast. Unfrozen Caveman Husband is pissed, and would like Cousin Debbie to please put on a different outfit for their adoption visit from their social worker, for example, something with seams. Never mind, Unfrozen Caveman Husband, because, the social worker is big old show queen, of the biological female variety! Go make a salad; the girls have to talk casting for the Into the Woods revival at the Delacorte this summer. Do you think Meryl is a strong enough rapper for the Witch?

At a tastefully lit Manhattan bistro, Karen and Beloved Boyfriend must dine with her parents, who have come from Iowa in order to passive-aggressively wonder aloud why they slaved away giving her a nice upper-middle-class childhood just so she could be a singing waitress with no health insurance who lives in a filthy crawl space by the river with no closets or outlets in the right places. And I while I have not shown great affinity for this character so far, I have to say, GURL, I HAVE WALKED IN YOUR SHOES AND THEY ARE HATEFUL, HATEFUL SHOES THAT MAKE YOUR FEET BLEED, LIKE WHEN THE UGLY STEPSISTERS CUT OFF THEIR TOES TO FIT INTO CINDERELLA’S SLIPPERS IN INTO THE WOODS AND ALSO THE BIRDS PECK THEIR EYES OUT. Iowan Dad is Dylan Baker, wearing an Evil Mr. Spock goatee and an expression of deep skepticism. Mom just wants Karen to marry her indeterminately ethnic boyfriend already and stop getting rejected all the time. Never wear mauve to a ball! Or pink!

Oh shit, guess what happened! Ellis the Woodland Christmas Critter leaked the Marilyn demo (with Ivy singing) onto a fictional Internet entity known as YouLenz. He didn’t know his mom was going to send it to everyone! Cousin Debbie wants him dead, C-A-S-T-R-A-T-E-D, dead. What if Michael Riedel sees it? He’s going to destroy it, just like he did Spider-man! Who is Michael Riedel, you ask? Well, according to Tom, he’s a “Napoleonic little Nazi” who writes for the New York Post, and in giving him a shout-out on such a big platform, Theresa Rebeck has just bought herself fifteen years worth of favorable mentions from him. Well played, T.Rebeck (to be pronounced Trebek, as in Alex.)

But Michael Riedel loves it! And Woodland Ellis is rehired, after delivering a prepared two-minute monologue about What the Theater Means to Him (you see, he did props in high school once and for the first time, he felt like he belonged somewhere. He felt … whole. Ellis is a master of subliminal messaging) and Tom and Cousin Debbie are summoned to Anjelica Huston’s underground Pleasure Palace, for which the set directors have sadly not chosen to recycle the set from Isabella Rossellini’s house in Death Becomes Her. She is a high-powered producer named Eileen, and she wants to do Marilyn the Musical, and she knows just the person to direct it: theater genius Derek Wills, who was going to direct her My Fair Lady revival until it all fell apart and her assets went into escrow because of her divorce from her husband Jerry, a slimy asshole who is played by an actor playing Frank Langella. There’s only one problem: Tom hates him. Eileen says she’ll get him to audition, and Tom likes the idea of publicly humiliating another prominent theater professional, so he agrees.

However, Derek (who is played by the guy who played the naval captain Keira Knightley didn’t want to marry in Pirates of the Caribbean and at this point I scream out loud because there is nothing I love more in a sex way than a stern Englishman who is impossible to reach emotionally) says that to get him to agree to audition, Eileen will have to produce the reanimated body of Marilyn Monroe for him to do it to, and in this way is it made clear to us that unlike virtually every other adult human male in the world of musical theater, Derek Wills is a vagina enthusiast. It might seem like an outlandish request, but luckily Anjelica Huston is a sorcerer who has lived thousands of years and is skilled in the art of necromancy, so Zombie Marilyn is summoned naked from her crypt, to service Derek sexually, and the next thing we know he’s in the rehearsal room, wearing his soft pants (an actual theatrical term for the pants you wear in movement/rehearsal situations, as opposed to hard pants, which have a zipper and which are worn only to things like your temp job, or to weird dates where you eat food off a plate, as opposed to normal dates which are really just you spontaneously fucking your scene partner in his dorm room after you’ve rehearsed the scene from Buried Child you’re supposed to present in class on Tuesday) and ready to show our first big choreographed numbah to the gang! It’s a big occasion! Cousin Debbie has belted her sweater-cape!

Ivy is playing Marilyn in “The National Pastime,” the the baseball number we’ve heard snatches of throughout the show. It’s great. Cousin Debbie is beside herself with glee, and she and Tom have a nice little moment where they say “work” about a million times, just the way theater people do, giving it incredible weight an import. “This is … spectacular … work.” “You don’t have to tell me the work is spectacular.” “It’s all about the work.” “The work is the only thing that matters.” Gurl, you better work.

Karen shows up for her Marilyn audition, and the studio hallway is teeming with sad women in full Marilyn drag. Unfortunately, Karen didn’t get the memo that you’re supposed to blow $600 renting a costume for a part they probably already cast Scarlett Johansson for, so she just has stupid brown hair and a stupid white shirt and she is stupid. Go back to Iowa, you rube! Then a thing occurs that is my second-favorite trope in all of cinema: the where a little nervous nobody, and no one is paying attention, and then she starts singing, and it’s a little shaky at first, and then suddenly, their ears all prick up at once and they are like: OH MY GOD! SHE’S AMAZING!! (My first favorite, in case you were wondering, is the “shopping montage.”) And I want her to be amazing! But Kat McPhee is not! It’s not that she has a bad voice, but it’s sort of affected and way back in her throat in a way that you know she’s going to need nodule surgery in three months, and her physicality is really awkward and her face is kind of dead. But I want her to be better! Maybe that’s her talent, that she makes you want to like her?

Anyway, she gets a callback; they need to see her be sexy. This is a problem, she tells Beloved Dev, because she “can’t do sex.” Presumably this is because she has a rare chromosomal mutation that has left her with undeveloped genitalia, just like Elizabeth Short, a.k.a. the Black Dahlia, which allegedly led to her murder by a furious would-be date rapist (at least, this is what I was told by A.J. Benza on the E! Network’s seminal Mysteries and Scandals.) Instead of bisecting her body at the waist, draining it of blood, and leaving it to rot in a field, Beloved Dev helps her find her inner Marilyn by saying the word “breasts” over and over again, putting on Some Like It Hot and instructing Karen look at Marilyn’s “breasts” while they fuck. I guess it’s less creepy and manipulative than suggesting they have an actual threesome, so good on Dev?

Cuddlus is interruptus when Karen gets a text message from Derek the Evil Englishman, summoning her his sin den to show him she knows how to be sexy. Oooh! It’s like that episode of Beverly Hills 90210 where Brenda and Kelly are competing for the part of Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Brenda goes over to the director’s house (he was English too!) at night in a halter dress to “work” on her “interpretation” of the “role” and Kelly thinks she slept with him for the part, even though she totally didn’t. Karen doesn’t shag Lieutenant Norrington either, although she does put on one of his shirts over her underpants and sings “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” after gathering her courage during a private moment of brave tears/chin acting in the bathroom mirror. Come on, Captain, you can wear your shoes! She gives his testicles a condescending little pat on the way out, which is a nice touch.

Callback day! Ivy and Karen, blonde and brunette, voluptuous and weedy, sexy and potentially genitally stunted. Let me be your star, they sing in concert as they fly through the streets of New York City, past bike messengers, construction workers, and befuddled Hasidic teenagers, on the way to their destinies. Who will emerge victorious? Will the role be split into two, light and dark, Marilyn and Norma Jean? Will they have to play it in unison, like conjoined twins, Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner in Side Show, Tilly Losch and Lotte Lenya in the original Paris production of The Seven Deadly Sins? By the end of the season, will one lie dead at the other’s hand?

We don’t know. We can’t know. But Anjelica Huston does. Anjelica Huston, her dark bob swinging purposefully as she strides, pantherlike, through the oddly empty streets of Times Square; Anjelica Huston, her sphinxlike mask of a face hiding eyes that have seen the deepest mysteries of time, that have seen stars born, and seen them fade, that have beheld as life took its first faltering steps from the sea, eyes that will still blink impassively when Earth at last is subsumed by the fiery death of the sun. Anjelica Huston has seen it all.

Smash Recap: The Play’s the Thing