Smash Recap: The Bernadette Motherf*cking Peters Show


The Workshop
Season 1 Episode 7
Editor’s Rating 3 stars


The Workshop
Season 1 Episode 7
Editor’s Rating 3 stars
Photo: Will Hart/NBC

It’s happened. Geese are flying south for the summer. The sun has risen in the west (and yes, I do have to sing through that section of the Beauty and the Beast lyric in order to remember which direction it’s actually supposed to rise/set; and yes, I do have to do so in the voice of Mrs. Potts). The ghost of Charlie Nylund is communicating to us through the cantaloupe aligned to one side in the fruit salad. A plain yellow pumpkin has become a golden carriage; a plain country bumpkin and a prince are joined in marriage.

Impossible, you say? Portents of doom presaging the End, when the Earth will complete its metamorphosis into a tiny ball of molten flames, which in a single gulp will disappear into the mouth of Anjelica Huston, the very mouth that let out the fiery belch that heaved it into existence at the Dawn of Time? Mais non! It’s simply that the even more impossible thing has happened: An actual Broadway star has sung an actual, non-Marilyn-related Broadway show tune on Smash, a television program purporting to be about the Broadway musical theater.

I’ll get into my intense reaction to this in a moment (and yes, it involves a LOT of Kleenex, and yes, I need to stop adding parentheticals that begin “and yes”), but first we have to check in with 42nd Street’s most adorable adulterers, Cousin Debbie and Michael Swift, who, judging by the beatific smile playing across Cousin Debbie’s autumnal-shaded lips, is anything but. (Unless of course his surname refers to the speed with which he has jettisoned his marital vows, and not his sexitudinal endurance, in which case, carry on, Swifty.) They are behaving like a couple of hormone-crazed, acne-scarred grotesques on the band bus, moistly holding hands and gnashing their damp pelvises together frantically before springing apart ostentatiously whenever a door opens, lest Derek or Anjelica Huston see what they’re up to, forgetting that Derek barely knows either of their names, let alone their marital statuses, and just wants Cousin Debbie to keep her legs closed long enough to, I don’t know, finish writing the goddamn show in time for the workshop tomorrow, and Anjelica Huston just wants the goddamn liberal crypto-Islamofascist Socialist Saul Alinsky–reading,William Ayers–butt-sniffing labor union to let the maintenance crew to turn the fucking heat down in the building before Manny Azenberg has a stroke and his heirs decide to sink their inheritance into a major Broadway revival of Emanuel Azenberg’s Jerome Robbins’s Broadway instead. “Oh, it’s hot in here because of the boiler?” wheezes a gleeful Cousin Debbie. “Because I thought it was just the torrents of steam emanating from my Swiftly-inseminated vagi … OOPS! YOU DIDN’T HEAR THAT! TEE HEE TEE HEE.” Oh, Cousin Debbie, nobody cares. That is, nobody except Ellis Dappledawn, sucking his teeth and smelling his fingers in his filth-warren under the linoleum, like the furry little pervert he is.

Let’s see, what else on this show does nobody care about? Oh look, it’s that girl Karen who was friends with your roommate freshman year, until she decided to transfer to the University of Colorado where people were “real” instead of “fake” like you, you self-involved bitch. Wearing her usual loose-knit Urban Outfitters hairshirt and air of sullen bewilderment, Karen arrives at the lair of Bobby Raskin, the wealthy Jewish record mogul who heard her sing to the Oriental hordes at this so-called “Bar Mitzvah” last week. She is greeted by a surly lackey who is as hostile and unprofessional as this show would have us believe is every artistic underling in Manhattan, but he is quickly won over by Kat McPhee’s uncanny ability to open her mouth and have a fully produced, fully Auto-Tuned soundtrack to a NuvaRing commercial emerge. “Ugh, they want me to go back and record again,” she whines to Eyelid and Gore Vidal during their pre-rehearsal stretch-and-kvetch. “But what about rehearsal?” Just go, says everyone, including Ann Harada. Go. Leave and win your undeserved Grammy and your undeserved millions and your brief and undeserved sexual relationship with Russell Brand and leave us Broadway folks to toil in obscurity and poverty forever. Okay, says Karen, skipping to the door.

And then.

The door swings open.

Ladies and Gentleman: Miss Bernadette Peters.


You guys, I’m kind of at a loss. I don’t exactly know how to recap this. Because usually Bernadette Peters is not on this show, and yet, in my own way, I am mostly just always writing about Bernadette Peters, and now that she is actually here, in the flesh, in a floor-length fur and clutching an enormous Birkin the same rich lady caramel color as her famous Bernadette Peters ringlets, I am experiencing a kind of synapse overload that has propelled me into a psychotic Being John Malkovich–esque trance state in which everyone is Bernadette Peters, spouting phrases associated Bernadette Peters. A trickle of sweat right under the tit! It seems the less I wear, the more comfortable I feel! I let her have the rampion! How do you fathom George?

“Ivy,” Derek says with his most charming smile. “I didn’t know your mother was Cole Escola!” Well, she is, and she’s a Broadway legend, and that explains Ivy’s crippling insecurity, if not her mystifying difficulty in getting her big break to begin with. Sing something, Bernadette! Oh, no she couldn’t possibly! For one thing, she’s wouldn’t do anything to steal the focus from her darling daughter Ivy, who is currently doing double duty as her mother’s coatrack, and for another where could she possibly find an adoring homsexualist able to play selections from Gypsy without the aid of sheet music! Oh, Tom darling, could you?

And then Bernadette Peters sings “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”

And … this is just everything. I had a dream! I dreamed it for you, Ivy! This is how I dreamed this show could feel all the time, the way I felt when I watched the PBS recording of Sunday in the Park With George every day after school for two years until my mother started making veiled threats about “how much more of this” she was “willing to take” and I started sneaking it to school in my Pigs in Space lunch box, just to make sure an unhappy accident did not befall the fragile VHS tape while I was compelled by truancy laws to be away from the house. I feel like … I feel like they listened to me. I feel valued. This is how Lilly Ledbetter must have felt, if Lilly Ledbetter had thrown up in the bathroom at Marie’s Crisis at least four times in the past six months. This, America. This is what Broadway is. And as Anjelica Huston would say, “There’s no need to apologize.”

The door swings open again … and it’s Patti LuPone!!!!! Oh no, spoke to soon. It’s just Michael Swift’s Wife of Convenience and BrooklynChild, who runs straight toward his faithless father with a piercing “DADA!” This affects Michael Swift not at all, as he is a sociopath and does not feel regret or shame as others do, but Cousin Debbie’s face melts like an untouched scoop of ice cream on a scorching August sidewalk. Desperate, she throws her burlap monk’s cowl over her head and runs out of the rehearsal room, out of the building, out of the borough, trudges all the way home to: Brownstone Brooklyn/Brownstone Brooklyn/Underworked, overpriced Brownstone Brooklyn/where tattooed butchers cut the meat/Brownstone Brooklyn, Brownstone Brooklyn/intimate, obstinate Brownstone Brooklyn/where giant strollers block the streetv…

And it’s Carpet! Pot-smoking! Pot-smoking in his bedroom with his best friend and occasional auto-erotic-asphyxiation buddy Bathmat! These are the lengths to which his mother’s harlotry has driven him! Oh Carpet, beware! It’s all fun and games now, sparking up a doobie (or whatever you young floor treatments are calling it these days), quivering with excitement as Bathmat gently tightens the noose of his Groton rep tie against your Adam’s apple, but before you know it you could be addicted to prednisone like Ivy, staring helplessly into the mirror where a giant piece of Astroturf in the shape of Ruben Studdard hounds you with his rendition of “Break On Through (To the Other Side)” until you throw yourself out the window to your death.

Where was I? I’m sorry, this Bernadette Peters thing has really destroyed my sense of narrative. Oh, the boiler is still broken, because of the no-good pinko secularist Obama terrorist union boiler fixer people. But luckily, Anjelica Huston has been engaged in the Lower East Side’s “Get to Know Your Bartender” campaign. Her bartender is Goran. He strong like bull. He know illegal plumber, good man, reliable man. In his country he is engineer, now he fix pipes. And then the plumber shows up … and he is Latke Gravas! Andy Kaufman isn’t dead, you guys! He’s just been hiding out all this time in Kew Gardens, biding his time, learning about admittance valves and suction rods, preparing for his triumphant comeback as the terrified Foreign Plumber in Smash. It is the greatest and most insane piece of performance art since Rick Santorum decided to seek the presidency of the United States. Do you guys think Santorum is watching this show? Because you know Mike Huckabee is. But the real question is when Marcus Bachmann going to make his cameo as a temperamental (but extremely butch) wig designer?

I think I may be losing my mind.

It’s the day of the show, y’all! (I had to say it sometime, it might as well be now.) Derek lies in his black bed of danger. Ivy and Bernadette Peters (so that’s how it is in their family!) wake side by side in Ivy’s yellow bed of cowardice; Tom, shirtless and freshly waxed, stirs beside boring lawyer Jon in their gray bed of perfunctory sodomy. Unfrozen Caveman Husband, who has thus spent the episode unseen, learning the difficult scientific lesson that while fire is a truly a gift from the gods, it does not feel good on your tongue, lolls alone in Cousin Debbie’s Christmas-scented sachet of lies. And Karen? Well, Karen is snuggled up with Beloved Boyfriend Dev when she gets a call from the office/pawnshop of the Jew Bobby Raskin! He wants to meet her in person, you see! And the only possible available time is right this second, because in approximately fifteen minutes he is moving to Paupa New Guinea, and then Saturn, forever, and there’s absolutely no chance to reschedule and if she doesn’t immediately drop everything she’s doing, including any or/all other professional commitments, he’ll be forced to assume she not interested in sleeping with him to further the cause of her career. But Karen, as she’s modestly pointed out on so many previous occasions, would never do such a thing, because she is a Real American from Iowa and not like the rest of you self-interested New Yorkers who just take, take, take.

And in that vein, let me tell you a little story. Some time ago, I found a cell phone that someone had left behind in a cab; actually, I thought it was mine and had just fallen out of my purse, which was why I didn’t give it to the driver, and then I got home and realized I had two phones. So I started calling the numbers in this lost phone until I got the husband of the woman it belonged to, and it turned out she was visiting from Ohio on some church trip, and he was frantic that he couldn’t get a hold of her, and after many phone calls back and forth I finally arranged for her to pick it up from the doorman of my cousin’s building, which was near the woman’s hotel. Suffice it to say, I went to quite a lot of trouble, and when I went by my cousin’s to make sure that she’d made it there all right, the following note was waiting for me: “Dear Rachel,” it said, “Thank you for returning my phone. I had been led to believe that all New Yorkers were rude, selfish, and uncaring. I guess you are the exception that proves the rule.” And so, in conclusion, I just want to say fuck you, Karen, and fuck you, Ohio lady. Most New Yorkers are better, more selfless people than either of you will ever be, who would never dream of giving the stink-eye to Ivy for not being friendly enough to them when it is the biggest day of her professional career and Bernadette Motherfucking Peters is just a single “sing out, Louise” from bringing all her dreams crashing down around her.

And yes, we may be dicks about fixing the heater and then threaten to call the cops when you bring Latka Gravas to fix it illegally, but even so, it’s only to set Anjelica Huston up for a line like: “Fine. Call the cops. I’ll call the Shuberts, and the Nederlanders.” And you have no talent! Not what I call talent! Places!

Oh wait! Not Places! Cousin Debbie forgot to finish writing the script! There is still one very important step in her process yet to fulfill. First, she has to sweep grandly and sadly into the rehearsal room, dressed like Zoe Caldwell in Master Class and break up with Michael Swift, whose kisses have turned to ashes in her mouth, just like the resin-scented ashes that tumbled from Carpet’s pot-smoking device onto his polyester-wool blend fibers, leaving a small dark smudge that will never be erased, no matter how much ammonia-laced Woolite she scrapes across his tender surface. But first, they have to improv a Marilyn/DiMaggio scene of pain, where they talk to each other through their lines, just like when Rayanne was in Our Town after she slept with Jordan Catalano and Angela could not forgive her. Have you noticed that Debra Messing’s hair is exactly the same color as Angela Chase’s? And is Will Chase related to Angela Chase? And what would this show be like if Winnie Holzman were writing it?

MARILYN: THE MUSICAL!!!! FOR REAL THIS TIME! In attendance: Unfrozen Caveman Husband, Bernadette Peters, Goran He Is Strong Like Bull, Andy Kaufman as his alter ego Scott Rudin, Joe Machota from CAA, and several other tiny, owlish men I would take for Jews if I didn’t know better from last week. We hear all our old favorites. And Ivy is great, except for the parts where they cut away from her into Karen’s dumb brown headscape of vapidity. But wait, apparently I don’t know anything, because Ivy is bad? Derek thinks she’s bad. Ivy is like, you try being good when the director keeps giving Kat McPhee all my glory notes. I mean, you can deal with being overshadowed by Bernadette Peters. But McPhee? McPhee?

And then it is over, and everyone mysteriously agrees that the show was bad (Jon even asks Tom: “How did you feel about it?” which in theatrical terms is like when the lady giving you a mammogram suddenly stops talking about her trip to Myrtle Bay and says, really quietly, “I’m going to go get the doctor”) and the Apportionment of Blame (and for theater people who, unlike Token, are mystified by games involving balls of the non-gonad sort, is the true national pastime) can begin. The ensemble, fickle sellswords that they are, blame Ivy, except (which I admit is to her credit) Karen, who correctly points out that Ivy was amazing. Thank you, Karen. Ivy, as is traditional, blames her mother for sucking up all the light (true, considering my proposed title for this recap is: “The Bernadette Motherfucking Peters Show”) and not loving her enough, just like Marilyn’s mother, although to be fair, Marilyn’s mother was a dangerously unhinged paranoid schizophrenic, for whom the issue was not so much loving her daughter as trying to ignore the voices ordering her to hold her daughter’s head in the deep-fat fryer until her face turned into a serving of onion rings.

Derek blames Ivy and (I suspect) an inside-sunglasses wearing Cousin Debbie for being too slutty to remember to write a script. But luckily, everyone else blames Michael Swift, who is just as slutty as Cousin Debbie and not nearly as talented. Michael, please pack your dance belt and go! Cousin Debbie draws the cloak of invisibility she bought last winter in the Eileen Fisher sample sale for the long trip back to her little shtetl of Brownstone Brooklyn in order to cradle a grateful Carpet in her arms. Oh, the tears of a Carpet. In Debra Messing’s armpit.

Meanwhile, after years of systematically, if thoughtlessly destroying her daughter’s fragile ego, Bernadette Peters is finally ready to throw Ivy the bone she so unattractively craves. “Louise … ”

“Stop calling me that,” says Ivy. “I’m no longer a child and I wish to see the world.”

Bernadette Peters sighs. “Oh, Louise. Don’t you know what’s out there in the world? Someone has to shield you from the world. Who out there could love you more than I? What out there that I cannot supply? Stay with me.”

And Ivy nods. Because Bernadette is right. What audience can substitute for this love, this wild, elemental, uncontrollable love? The love of a mother. The most creative, most destructive force in the world. Creation and destruction. Children and Art.

Children … and Art.

Smash Recap: The Bernadette Motherf*cking Peters Show