Every show, and indeed, every life, has its breaking point.
Your star director walks out on you. You get your big break, and your leading man is a gibbering baboon who rouges his buttocks because he thinks they’re his face. You have spent six years of your life refining your musical, sustained by little more than pond sludge, forest mead, and co-dependency, and have six hours to tech in a theater with no sounds, lights, or heat. You try to buy a new dress for the launch party of a book you worked on for two goddamn years, and every goddamn thing in every goddamn store is the same goddamn shade of peach, and you lie face down on the floor of the dressing room in Anthropologie and scream: “Peach???? Do I look like some kind of rosy-complexioned fucking Norwegian who is also a Mormon bridesmaid???”
The point is, you can’t spell show biz without an S, H, I, and a Z, which spells shiz, which a slang word edgy urban tastemakers like Gwyneth Paltrow use instead of shit. What matters isn’t that it happens; what matters is how you deal with it. Do you throw a hissy fit and storm off the set? Or do you pick yourself up off the floor and put on that black thing that’s so boring maybe no one will remember it, because Coco Chanel says the woman should wear the dress, not the other way around, and who cares if she was a Nazi sympathizer anyway? Not Rachel Zoe! Like, how do you cope with something that’s failing? With the sickening sensation of, in the words of Nina in The Seagull, acting when you know you’re boring?
Because that’s what this episode of Smash — and I would argue, this entire season of Smash — have really been about. I know I’ve said this before, but this is the episode where it really came together for me. They’re talking to us, on this show. There’s an awareness of a thing, and then an attempt (and I would argue a valiant one) to make that awareness the thing, and it circles around and around like when you read a Truman Capote story and try to figure out who all the characters are based on (PS: It’s not that hard) and also makes you wonder what would happen if Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman did a musical adaptation of an M.C. Escher drawing (although let’s be serious, Frank Wildhorn probably will). Complain all you want about narrative problems or lack of plausibility or why they have engaged in so much brave but fundamentally illogical species-blind casting, but Smash may be the only scripted television show in history that is also a reality show. And it’s kind of fascinating.
Anyway, on to the play within a play, where last week’s cliffhanger of Which! Book! Would Anjelica Huston! Choose! is quickly dispatched by a reaction shot of Cousin Debbie looking like someone has just rubbed three-day-old bird shit all over her face and then was like, Oh, don’t worry, it’s the same exfoliant Kate Middleton uses! Suffice it to say, it’s not the fully dramaturgid version we all didn’t see but were instructed to love.
Jerry (hello, Jerry), who has quickly and majestically assumed his role as the Player King, is insisting on all kinds of insaniac stagecraft, such as chartering a plane to fly into the theater for 30 seconds so Katharine McPhee can get off it, except that on the way to the theater the plane should be hit by actual lightning, which will be hurled from the ceiling by a new character, Zeus the Thunder God, and when the lightning bolt hits Norma Jean she is transformed into Marilyn, except the whole story is told by a Greek chorus of precision sea lions dressed as Indonesian shadow puppets who communicate only through repetative Brechtian Gestus. And yes, this all sounds like it’s for the tourists and everything (I mean, when Caryl Churchill comes to New York, she is technically a tourist), but it is all done with one specific, shockingly sensible thing in mind:
Jerry is not sure that Karen, crumpled-little–Duane Reade–receipt-you-stuck-your-gum-in-and-then-forgot-you-stuffed-back-in-your-purse-until-it-was-too-late Karen, has the chops to carry a major Broadway musical.
Jerry is now my favorite character.
I mean, I always liked him, even if I’ve vaguely wished in the past that he was played by Dabney Coleman, who simply has more experience with frogs and bears and chickens and things. But to hear him say exactly what I have been saying all along — Karen is not that special! Bombshell has one too many ballads! — it’s like … well, you know that episode of The Golden Girls where Dorothy feels terrible all the time and that one doctor just tells her to dye her hair and then she finds out there’s really something wrong and she tells him off in a very serious way and the studio audience applauds fervently and solemnly and that’s how we all learned what Chronic Fatigue Syndrome was? That’s how I feel. Don’t tell me to dye my fucking hair, Mr. Big Shot Chauvinist Doctor. I know my own mind!
The other things you need to know about this scene is that Cousin Debbie pronounces “Marilyn” exactly the same way as Jane Krakowski pronounces “camera,” which makes a lot of sense, because if Jenna Maroney had ever learned to read and/or write, she would be Julia Houston. Also, Jerry and Anjelica Huston and Jerry’s assistant Tracy Turnbladder want to cut that ballad about Yeats that Kat McPhee sings so sweetly and unintelligibly, and this makes my cousin Debbie (who mere seconds before was practically ready to rush the barre and dig poor Karen’s trachea out with a set of house keys) so angry she briefly considers taking Peter the Dramaturg up on his sexy sex martini offer to run away to London, England, where he will make her the Countess of Dramaturgy and they will live at Dramaturgington Abbey in the county of Dramaturginghamshire and Carpet — remember Cousin Debbie’s teenage carpet, Carpet? — might be able to find work flying Simon Callow around in the annual Aladdin Christmas pantomime at the Drury Lane.
But then Tom saves the day, by restaging it so that Marilyn shows “empowerment” and “savvy” by singing it as she strokes the hairless chests of several Muscular Chorus Gays, including Gore Vidal, who seems to have been promoted to the role of Joe DiMaggio, much to his chagrin. “Nasty little Sicilian,” Gore sniffs, “and you know what that means. In my opinion Ted Williams was by far the superior player, but you won’t read that on the cover of your New York Times.” (Yes, I know the names of two baseball players! Please forward all letters of congratulation to my father.)
So Karen is safe for now, not that she’s sweating it, because “What’s this?” Derek asks, tenderly stripping a smear of dried paint off her cervix. Oh, Karen’s just been helping Jimmy the Jerk and Kyle Goblinweed fix up the inside of a Styrofoam box containing the two-week-old remnants of a homeless man’s shwarma platter that the organizers of the Fringe Festival found on the sidewalk and are now allowing them to use as a venue for Hit List for the low, low rental fee of $3,500 per night. It’s such a big deal that it’s even been written up in Time Out New York, the very magazine that has thrice referred to me as “every Jewish man’s wet dream” even though I am not even the teensiest bit Korean, possibly by Adam Feldman, their soulful in-house troubadour, or bespectacled wizardly personage David Cote! And that has to be good, right?
Wrong! Because Jerry sees it! And whoops, Karen, God-I’m-so-afraid-and-annoyed-to-open-that-Tupperware-in-the-back-of-the-fridge Karen, forgot to mention to the producers of the Broadway show she’s the lead in that she’s doing another show, because if Karen really believes in a project, and really wants to do it, and it’s really the right thing, then it must be okay, right? No, Karen, actually, it’s called a noncompete clause. She’s out of Hit List. I’m sure Jimmy will take it well, though, right? Also, is it me, or is it possible that Katharine McPhee’s talking acting is even worse this season? It’s like she’s not even trying anymore. She might as well be reading cue cards, and yeah, we all know Estelle Getty did it, but listen, I knew Estelle Getty; Estelle Getty was probably a relative of mine, and Kat McPhee, you are not the reincarnation of Estelle Getty. (Tavi Gevinson is.)
Before we open that particular envelope of anthrax, though, let’s check in with Ivy! Hi, Ivy! Ivy is wonderful, she tells Karen on the Great Glass Elevator of Diminishing Expectations (for every floor you climb, your soul dies 1 percent). The show is wonderful, and the cast is wonderful, and everything is wonderful …
… and the elevator door opens on what looks like something out of a Hogarth engraving. Defiled women, hair shorn and gown torn to the waist, stagger about, babbling incoherently. Gaunt chorus boys clad in nothing but ragged dance belts stand shivering around a single lit match, their tears freezing to icicles on their sunken cheeks before they can even run to the mirror to admire them. In the corner, a wild-eyed Veanne Cox slowly roasts an emaciated infant on a spit over a fire made from potato peelings and charred copies of a “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift, her plaintive wail splitting the eardrums and rending the hearts of all who have the misfortune to hear it: “I was in Urban Cowboy!”
As Ivy picks her way through this fearful landscape, detangling filthy hands from her skirts and averting her eyes from pleading ones, Jack McFarland bounces up, hugging the preserved remains of the lamb from Gypsy that Anjelica Huston slaughtered in the last episode under his arm. “Hi, Mervyn,” he chirps cheerfully to Ivy, his face obscured by an enormous Isabella Blow–style fascinator that blinks “I’m off my meds!” in hot-pink neon lettering. “This is my wife, Leopold. We’re going to sodomize you now. Try not to make any sudden movements or I’ll have you torn limb from limb by my trained falcon, Scott Rudin.” Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the press preview of Rodgers and Hamerstein’s Caligula!
So what should Ivy do? “Steal the show, stupid,” says an increasingly despondent Derek, so she does, with a Cunegonde-ish number that has a lot of that kind of silly sexy stuff where your English teacher with a man ponytail is all, “The beasts with two backs! William Shakespeare knew about sexual intercourse, you guys! Isn’t that hip?” and in the meantime, you’re in high school in Nebraska and just want to get back to talking about how Willa Cather was a big old lezzie (which the boys were always really into, until they actually saw a picture of Willa Cather. Or “Catheter,” as she was popularly known).
But I love a cadenza and anything that mentions the Urusline nuns, and I’m also very glad the show has found perhaps the only role apart from Marilyn Monroe that can properly showcase Megan Hilty’s bodacious ta-tas, so I’m sold, and that’s the problem. Ivy’s too good! And this show is not called Hello, Horace Vandergelder; this show is not called Hello, Barnaby Tucker; and nobody gets a hit in a Helen Lawson show except Helen Lawson, so Ivy’s number has to go. At least until Jack McFarland comes across Ivy crying in the stairwell, and her hot tears just before the last enchanted rose petal of his heart does, and all of a sudden, he calls the cast together for a last-minute “honesty session” and everybody speaks their feelings and then they and their puppet avatars sing “If Just One Person (Believes in You)” and it’s like the end of Jim Henson’s funeral and I am so obsessed with the entire entity of Liasions: Now With 20 Percent More Raisins that I want to plural marry it and force it into perversions with me and my deceased male ovine wife.
Ugh, so the other thing. Hit List. Karen is obsessed with that, so obsessed that she goes to the show anyway, where she feels a strange, frantic nibbling at her ankles … and oh, look! It’s Holly Hedgehog, female sex lover of our dear departed Ellis Dappledawn!!! Ex-female sex lover, Holly retorts sternly, since she has since figured out that while Ellis may be the noble heir to a vast pinecone manufacturing fortune, he is also (a) a psychopath and (b) gay. Did Karen ever know this? Oh, honey, it’s called denial for a reason, and that’s because you would literally have to be at the other end of the Nile not to see that little Miss Madras Mustardvest was a big old ‘mo.
Anyway, she tells Karen that Ellis is working for Jerry now, which Karen dutifully reports, which enables Anjelica Huston to summon all the sacred spirits of Avalon into her presence chamber and deduce that Ellis had the unenviable job of digging up dirt on Goran the Bull, which all happened to be true and managed to convict him on a number of (still unnamed!) felony counts, so I don’t know how this changes anything, except to remind us that Jerry is still an asshole? A correct asshole with frighteningly sound theatrical judgment, but an asshole nonetheless.
Meanwhile, the pull of Jimmy, who only hits until you cry and after that you don’t ask why, is too strong, so Karen gives up everything to go be in his show. Boy, I’d love to be a wiretap on the phone when she calls Mr. and Mrs. All-American in Iowa to tell them how she gave up her well-paying big-time Broadway starring role to do two performances of a Fringe show in a basement with the Millennial answer to Billy Bigelow. Café Orlin will always be there when you need it, I guess.
And besides, it’s going to be okay, because Derek came to see it, and went into one of his space trances where the whole thing turned into Baz Luhrmann–in-Greenpoint and Katharine McPhee wore a bridesmaid’s dress and a wig with bangs (it is the “fringe” after all — tip your waiters, I’ll be here all night, except it’s already 6 a.m.) and he loved it, especially the part where Jimmy and Karen started kissing at the end and didn’t stop even when their routine was over, like that recurring dream I have where Alec Baldwin and I are pair skaters. (Sigh. The problem with writing at this time of night is that there are no boundaries. I’m sorry, Alec.) And then Jim Scott Oskar Nicola Ellis Eustis of the New York Manhattan Public Workshop Theater Club was there and he’ll take it! And Derek will direct, since he quit Bombshell, and Karen will be the star of everything, forever …
… except maybe not! Because Tom is the new director! Tom is directing Bombshell! It was decided over dumplings in Chinatown, where the soundest decisions are made! He will be the latest genius to right this sinking ship, to stop us wondering if it was wise to write a show with the word bomb in the title. (The Flophouse and Turkey Didgeridoo beg to differ.)
Will he succeed? I guess you’ll have to tune in next week to find out. No, really. Tune in. At 10 p.m. Seriously. All the New York actors and writers this employs (including yours truly) could really use the ratings. Barnaby Tuckers of the world, unite!