Greetings, People of the Book (by Arthur Laurents)!
I’m just back from a weekend in the country (how enchanting, on the manicured lawns), a weekend in the country (with the panting, and the yawns), where the Wi-Fi had not yet been turned on for the season, and I have to admit it was rather a delight to actually say out loud the thoughts and feelings I would ordinarily tweet.
But I’m certainly relieved I got back when I did. Otherwise, I would have missed the following retweet (courtesy of our own Gore Vidal, a.k.a. the very delicious Wesley Taylor) in which a theater-loving gentlewoman declines his exhortation to watch tonight’s episode of America’s favorite televised equivalent of ex-sex, saying: “Nope. I followed every Monday night until the gay lifestyle was rubbed in our face.”
To which “we” can only reply: oh, honey, no. Rubbing your face in it would be this. Or this. (Or me admitting how I agonized over whether or not to reference Hugh Wheeler, for accuracy’s sake, in my opening joke.) Smash hasn’t so much given “us” a face-rubbing as a back of the head downward push so timid and lacking in insistence “we” wonder if “we” felt it at all.
Which is why I couldn’t have been more thrilled to see this week open with Tom and Token singing “Another Openin’ to Another Show” as the Bombshell gang girds their collective loins for their first out-of-town tryout in Boston. Yes, it’s delightful to hear actual Broadway musical actors Christian Borle and Leslie Odom Jr. do what is by my count only the second-ever non-Marilyn-related show tune to appear on this show about show tunes. The sight of an interracial gay couple performing a Cole Porter song while gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes across a grand piano is exactly the big gay lefty dick-slap across the kisser we’ve been yearning for since this farkakte show went on the air. Sure, it’s a little lyrically on the nose, but so are that guy from Therapy’s balls, depending on how your head is angled.
So! Everybody is Little Miss Busy Belinda today, running to catch the train to Boston that must leave from Grand Central on Platform 9 ¾, because otherwise it does not exist. We see everybody pack, but leave it to Ivy to bring the one thing you need for an out-of-town Broadway tryout: a framed photograph of Bernadette Peters.
And then we are in Boston! Beautiful, historic, parking-challenged Boston, where an unemployed actor dressed as 1776 protagonist John Adams shows them to their dressing rooms with an envious grimace! There is scenery! And headsets! And uplights, and footlights and gels and gobos and all sort of other lighting implements that my voice switches into the register of a frightened 6-year-old when I have to reference out loud, which is part of why I never became a director! And a stage; a glorious, be-aproned stage upon which Karen can step out and do the Eve Harrington mental head-dip of tearful feigned gratitude to a sea of imaginary applause. Sit down, Karen. You’re obnoxious and disliked, you know that, sir.
But where Karen sees the promise of a glorious future, “Rebecca Duvall” looks out into the sea of empty seats, their velvet upholstery worn thin by centuries of judgy New England buttocks, and sees only failure and recrimination. She sees the ghost of Janeane Garofalo, smirking bitterly; she sees a wraithlike, furious Cady Huffman unhinge her jaw and let out a geyser of molten lava; she sees her own form clad in her Poison Ivy outfit from Batman and Robin, headless but moving, like the evil sorceress Mombi before she puts on a new head in Return From Oz, the most terrifying movie ever made. The leading-lady glow is fast taking on the chemotherapeutic sheen of flop sweat.
And just in time to make things even more nausea- and mouth-sore-inducing, the replacement Joe DiMaggio has this very second been cast in a pilot and has to leave, immediately, forever. Which means …
… NO! screams Tom, once again hurling his faithful little Charlotte York terrier body in front of those that would harm his mistress. “NOT HIM! NOT MICHAEL SWIFT! YOU CAN’T! BECAUSE OF COUSIN DEBBIE! BECAUSE OF THIS THING WITH HIM AND COUSIN DEBBIE THAT I CAN’T TELL YOU ABOUT BECAUSE IT’S A DARK SHOWBIZ SECRET, LIKE HOW CAROL CHANNING IS AN ADULT VIRGIN OR HOW EVA BRAUN’S REMAINS WERE SMUGGLED OUT OF THE BUNKER BY THE SOVIETS AND RADIOACTIVELY REANIMATED INTO THE ENTITY WE NOW KNOW AS ELAINE STRITCH!” Oh, relax, you big ‘mo, says Derek, he knows all about Michael and Cousin Debbie and their very meaningful boning; he just hasn’t made a big deal about it because he is an adult who is able to accord sexual intercourse its proper importance in the scheme of things: somewhere between Mad Men and remembering to buy more Windex before the cleaning lady comes on Tuesday. “BUT GIRLS!” wails Tom, “WHAT ABOUT LENA DUNHAM’S GIRLS??? IT’S VERY IMPORTANT!!!!” “I have no idea what you are talking about,” says Derek. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go explain rudimentary Stanislavski technique to Uma Thurman in a scene so pat I may have to fuck her just to keep her awake. Please try to pull your shit together. The costume parade starts in five.”
Speaking of oddly attired outer-borough women with too many feelings, where the hell is Cousin Debbie? Is she upstairs in her hotel room in Boston, feverishly making needed last-minute changes to the book of her hastily assembled multi-million-dollar Broadway musical? Oh, don’t worry, Tom has it under control, even though he’s never written a play before, and can’t type, and isn’t even quite sure of the proper grammatical use of an apostrophe. George Bernard Shaw didn’t use apostrophes at all, and look where he ended up! She can just stay home in her little Brownstone shtetl fixing Truth and Reconciliation Pancakes with Unfrozen Caveman Husband. See, every time you flip one over, you have to confess another horribly explicit and betraying sex thing you did with the man who wasn’t your husband, then the griddle melts it away, and at the end you symbolically eat the pancakes. It’s Patrick Marber meets Athol Fugard in an IHOP, is the condensed Hollywood pitch. It’s also highly dangerous, which is why Cousin Debbie is wearing protective Holocaust mittens, Holocaust being used here in the cloak André the Giant wears in The Princess Bride sense, not in the, you know, the Steven Spielberg sense. (There will be no survivors.)
But the carefully reconstructed postwar façade of Cousin Debbie’s marriage is about to get bombarded yet again, because Michael Swift is coming back, baby! At least, that’s what she would know if Tom had the sack to tell her, which of course he doesn’t, so thank God for Anjelica Huston, otherwise this subplot would never get anywhere. (If you’re wondering how Anjelica Huston makes it back and forth from Boston to New York so many times in this episode without ever having to change her clothes, it’s because she apparates using the Floo Network Acela, which actually gets to your destination earlier than when you started. You’re welcome.)
Please, Cousin Debbie pleads, falling on her knees the voluminous plum-colored Maternity Tunic of Penitence and Amulet of Chastity in which she has garbed herself for her visit to the altar of the sacred Mother Anjelica (no relation). Please. Get someone else, anyone else. Raul Esparza. Cheyenne Jackson. Neil Patrick Harris. Whoopi Goldberg. Anyone. Oh, Cousin Debbie, don’t you realize no one who isn’t stalking you is going to drop everything and go to Boston during Tony season?
Cousin Debbie’s typically mature reaction to the Michael Swift Project is to dress up in a plaid lab coat she has incorrectly buttoned for comic effect like Patch Adams and to scream at Tom on the phone that he sold her out. To which Tom’s reaction, against all sense is not: “Excuse me? You’re the one who slept with the help” and then threaten to quit the whole show.
And at this point, I have to admit I am so baffled by the moral universe of this show that I am forced to implement a new feature called “Ask a Husband” in which I pause the DVR and ask my Neverfrozen Real Husband (NRH) exactly what he would make of such a situation. Our exchange, conducted as he was innocently dispatching a box of Carr’s Water Biscuits in the kitchen, is as follows:
ME: What if I was having an affair with an actor?
[NRH looks alarmed.]
ME: No, not for real! It’s hypothetical. Say I had an affair with an actor in a play I wrote, and you found out and left me, but then I fired him and you and I kind of got back together, but it’s tenuous, but now the guy who was playing his part had to leave and we have to have the affair guy back or the whole show will be ruined? Would that be okay with you? Oh! And I’d actually first had an affair with that guy years ago, but you never found out.
NRH: So you were a two-time cheater?
ME: Right. But you could potentially look at the two affairs as one long one with just a brief circumstantial hiatus in the middle, like some historians do with World War I and World War II.
NRH: Well, I don’t know that I would have gotten back together with you in the first place.
ME: Okay, but you’re not you. You’re Unfrozen Caveman Husband.
ME: That’s what I call him in my Smash recaps. I don’t actually know the character’s real name.
[NRH chews thoughtfully for several seconds.]
NRH: Well, I guess if I was a big enough bitch to be that afraid of being alone and that desperate to be with someone who obviously didn’t value me or want to be with me, I suppose I would probably let it slide.
And he was absolutely right! Because just as Cousin Debbie is tucked up in her cinnamon scented nest of non-lesbian bed-death, auto-erotically gagging herself with a big, firm, peanut-butter-covered banana that reminds her vaguely of Michael Swift, when UCH and Carpet appear. “We’re not letting you give up on your life, Mom,” says Carpet, because nothing is more important to a 17-year-old than his mother’s fulfillment of her life’s journey. God, if I had a dollar for every time when I said something at that age like: “But what do you want, Mom?” or “Tell me what I can do to help you better negotiate your work-life balance, Mommy,” I would have … negative one million dollars. Anyway, the good news is that Jill Zarin, the headmistress at the Zarin Academy of Gifted and Talented Fabrics, is off taping a reality pilot called Stone the Jewess for Iranian television, so Carpet has an extra-long spring break this year! They’re coming to Boston, to keep the intruders out of Cousin Debbie’s vagina, hurray! This marriage is saved!
As this semi-human drama is unfolding, everyone else is in that sorry-grateful, regretful-happy part of tech where you are so bored and hot that you want to kill yourself, but are also kind of really excited to get to stand around in uncomfortable clothing quietly gossiping about everybody’s sex lives through clenched teeth while they shine various flattering lights on you (it’s as close to the upper-crust Wasp lifestyle that theater people get). Ivy is giddy, because OMG! Derek sort of told her he loved her, hard as it is for an Englishman to say that, and now she has to parse the precise tone of his words with all her gays, since that is what people in healthy relationships do, right? Right? Ice cream, he brought her ice cream, vanilla ice cream, imagine that!
Of course, where there is ice cream, there is often cake, in this case presented to Derek on the occasion of his birthday by “Rebecca Duvall” in full Marilyn “Happy Birthday, Mr. Pweessideeent” drag … and well, let’s just say her impression does not have a Patch Adams on Wayne Campbell’s, but it is sufficiently … shall we say … invitational to force Ivy to lurk outside the hallway of “Rebecca Duvall’s” dressing stable, certain she’s going to catch them in the act, Sally Draper–style. “Fear not, fair lady!” declares Ellis Dappledawn, astride a snow-white hunting mouse, his pistachio-shell armor gleaming in the ghost light. “I shall be on my guard, that your lover shall remain true!” But then the mouse had to go outside to take a piss, and well … let’s just say the Samoan wasn’t giving Marcellus Wallace’s wife no foot massage this time. And that’s dinner …
… where Token, whose family is conveniently located in the Boston-area where they squat inside the set for the Mr. and Mrs. Smith that took place inside Debra Messing’s head in episode three, has brought Tom home to meet the folks and partake in an impromptu dinnertime production of A Chorus Line. Quick, says Token’s father, Senator Clay Davis, when did you know you wanted to be in the theater? “Well,” Tom says, “Mother always said I’d be very attractive, when I grew up, when I grew up … ” Step-ball-change! Don’t you think being a dancer is an unreliable profession? Tom’s head spins 360 degrees on its axis (which Christian Borle can actually do, in disregard of all known laws of physics): “Well, sure, it’s dance ten, looks three and I’m still on unemployment, dancing for my own enjoyment…” But Tom, you’re not a dancer. Still, what’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen happen to one? Tom’s eyes grow cloudy. “It was near the end of auditions for a new Broadway show and Paul fell and hurt his knee, and we all realized how careers can end in an instant … ”
But Token is hurt. He feels Tom is egging his father on by being negative about his chosen profession. All Token ever wanted was the music and the mirror, and Tom will never understand what he did for love. What he did for love. WHAT. HE. DID. FOR — and Tom silences him with actual, honest-to-God male-on-male tongue touching! It’s a long shot, and Token’s brother and sister-and-law have to pop out on the porch to give Curly and Laurey and network mandated shivaree, but rub it, bitches! Rub it!
So, the weird thing about Kat McPhee is that I can’t tell when it’s Kat McPhee trying to actually act happy, or she is actually successfully acting as Karen trying to act happy when she is not in fact happy? It’s like a January Jones situation, although less useful, because the genius of Betty Draper is that she is actually badly and inauthentically acting out her own life, whereas we are supposed to believe that Karen Cartwright is the second coming of Meryl Streep or something. (Okay, maybe not Meryl. But close. Glenn Close.) But I’m going to give Kat the benefit of the doubt here (as she has been given several helpful lines to this effect) and assume that Karen is indeed deeply ambivalent about Beloved Dev’s surprise visit to Boston. You see, Karen was gone for two whole days or something before that lady from the New York Times showed up at his apartment with bourbon and he was so lonely and neglected that he made out with her for several seconds and then had to be like, “No! I can’t!” because that plays into his conception of himself as a good person and if that wasn’t manufactured drama enough, he had to run up to Boston to pull Karen out of her actual professional job and out of nowhere, demand that she marry him.
And Karen’s answer is so awesome, and delivered with so little self-awareness, that I think it might be the meme of the season (and might have made me a convert to Kat McPhee’s affectless “if–Richard Maxwell–wrote-for–General Hospital” acting):
“I can’t get married. I’m in tech.”
“I’m in tech.” Just think of it! Think of all the various unpleasant states of beings this could effectively deflect! I can’t file my taxes, I’m in tech! I can’t be fat, I’m in tech. No, I can’t motherfucking hold, I’M IN TECH.
And Formerly Beloved Dev is NOT happy. Think of all the sacrifices he’s made for Karen! He didn’t sleep with that slutty New York Times girl! He didn’t go to Washington to take that imaginary job with the fictional government entity that hires foreign nationals in sensitive positions! Ugh, Dev is the worst kind of guy, the kind that does shitty things he then blames you for. Girls of the world, heed this big sisterly advice: The only reason to sleep with this guy is out of self-hatred. (And okay, a tiny bit because of hotness, and because of the way his ears go pink like Feivel Mouskewitz when he is angry.)
But otherwise … oh, hi, Despondent, Self-Loathing Ivy. Hello, Pissy, Entitled Dev. Why don’t you pretend you don’t know that you know each other, then joylessly rub your heterosexuality all over each other’s faces? I’ll be in tech.