theater review

Theater Review: Shakespeare, Riffed On Relentlessly, in Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus

Nathan Lane and friend in Gary. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

The primary thrill of Taylor Mac’s uneven new Shakespearean riff-o-rama, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, is the latest addition to the production. Julie White joined the cast of Gary back in March, when one of its stars, Andrea Martin, suffered an injury and her fellow cast member Kristine Nielsen switched over to her role. Now, a month and a half later, though it’s Nathan Lane’s name that tops the marquee and Nielsen’s that comes close behind, it’s all but impossible to imagine Gary without White’s brilliantly kooky antics. Of the show’s game trio of actors, she’s the one living most comfortably in its heightened, hyperactive yet pensive, tragical-comical-scatalogical world. She’s the one most frequently revealing, through the combined zaniness and pathos of her marvelously feverish performance, the fullness of the play’s potential.

Because right now, Gary is still a creature of potential. “I make a lot of work that has heterogeneity in it,” Mac recently told the Times, “genre, forms, style all squished together.” Characteristically, the “proudly maximalist” playwright has a lot cooking in Gary (not omitting the rapist-stuffed meat pies that accompany the climax of Shakespeare’s gory tragedy). The play wants to be a breathless farce, a political gut-punch, a meditation on our penchant for violence and our reverence for classical drama, a vigorous mash-up of high- and lowbrow (imagine the “Approval Matrix” … all squished together), and a defiant, art-forward beacon of hope. And it feels like some of these things, some of the time. But despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that George C. Wolfe’s production is pitched pretty much unrelentingly at 11, Gary isn’t as funny or as biting as it could be. Like the big Rube Goldberg machine that looms over Santo Loquasto’s appropriately garish, corpse-strewn set, the play’s working parts, while visible, aren’t always activated.

But neither the play nor its enthusiastic titular clown — played by Lane with Cockney pluck, smudgy white makeup, and a vertical frizz of curls — lack for ambition. Gary, given a name by Mac, has been rescued from a deadly cameo in Titus Andronicus. There, as an anonymous clown, he was arbitrarily sentenced to death. But, this Gary tells us as his play begins, he escaped the gallows with “a little wit” by offering up his services as a maid. After the kind of bloody coup that ends the story of Titus, somebody has to clean up the dead. Now, armed with pail and mop, that somebody is Gary. “Best first day on the job that ever was!” he beams as he makes his entrance, though he quickly blanches at the literal mountain of corpses that towers over the banquet hall where he’s been sent to tidy up.

The play unfolds as an extended philosophical battle between clown turned maid Gary and maid-for-life Janice (Nielsen), with wacko, not-dead-yet Carol (White) caught in the middle. (Carol’s another refugee from Shakespeare’s play, where she was a midwife named Cornelia who had her throat cut, but in the absurdist, wrongs-still-to-be-righted world of Gary, she’s got life in her yet.) “Ya think this is me first massacre?” irascible, twitchy-eyed Janice growls at her new workplace associate. “Ya think I sad around idle on the Ides of March?” Janice is good at keeping her head down, while Gary’s is always in the clouds, envisioning new and better worlds. “Cleaning is immoral!” he finally explodes at Janice. “The massacre … was always floating about, just under the surface, and all you’ve done is make it seem pleasant for the people making the mess … [The] mop is as unethical as a sword.” Gary dreams of becoming a Fool — “a clown with ambition!” — and over the course of the play develops into an artist-figure not unlike Mac himself. He’d rather make theater with the corpses than clean them up. To Janice’s horror and Carol’s nervous excitement, he starts planning “a Fooling”: a “comedy revenge to end all revenge,” a spectacle so spectacular that it will “save the world” with wonder.

That’s plenty to chew on, so why doesn’t Gary feel more satisfying? Crucially, its comedy isn’t always expertly calibrated, and its arguments often feel padded and repetitive. Before Carol shows up, Gary and Janice spend a long time simply butting heads. One thinks X, the other thinks Y, and that’s about all there is to that. Mac intersperses their bickering with plenty of scatalogical humor, but these lazzi feel much less wickedly hilarious than they might be, and the play’s ideas, though strongly stated, begin to spin their wheels. Nielsen and Lane are both superb performers, but there’s something missing in their interaction. A sharp sense of status, so essential in clowning, hasn’t been solidly established, and the Cockney accents — which Mac says should “walk the line between realism and awareness,” reflecting an “American playfulness” — end up feeling more like a familiar shtick. (When Lane’s Gary removed his wig in a moment of real emotion, I found myself wondering why, if his speech is in fact a kind of commentary, he couldn’t remove his accent too.) Though she’s throwing herself into the part, Nielsen sometimes seems strained in her search for different notes in Janice’s pugnacious earnestness. She’s got the play’s toughest role, often a simple negative force in the dialogues, and it’s a mercy when she’s released into her few solo moments, where Nielsen finally seems able to breathe, flex, and really feel.

Wolfe’s staging leans way into farcical mania — so much so that, as Nielsen and Lane spend much of their time full-on shouting, you can find yourself admiring their energy while tuning out what they’re saying. Mac’s experiments with blank verse can have a similar effect: Sometimes they’re clever and captivating; other times they become verbose and singsongy, alienating our ears when they should tantalize. Again it’s White, who opens the show with a thematic prologue, who’s always got a grip on the play’s language, whether verse or prose. One of the mini-miracles of her performance is that she’s no less madcap than her fellow actors — Carol’s backstory monologue is a masterpiece of verbal and physical lunacy — and yet you catch and relish every word. It looks like Carol’s train has jumped the tracks, but somehow White keeps it whizzing nimbly along with the audience delightedly aboard.

Unlikely as it may seem, Lane may not be the actor Mac’s play actually wants driving it. It’s not his fault — it’s his nature. There’s something so established, so knowingly adroit and comfortable about Lane, that it takes away from Gary’s utter outsiderness, his grubby, scrappy, “everyman who’s a nobody else” persona. Lane can easily summon up Gary’s ebullience and intellectual spark, but then, everything he does feels easy. He’s a king of comedy here playing a peasant, and, Cockney or not, his performance never quite gives the sense of the cruelly disenfranchised little guy, the dispensable extra rising up. It’s a weird paradox of Broadway, where it’s practically a commandment that a big name needs to sit atop the title of a play like Mac’s — but the truth is that Gary doesn’t necessarily want a name. It wants a rebel. It wants, like its hero, to attack complacency with creativity and irreverence, honesty and joy. It wants to be a downtown play frolicking subversively inside an uptown theater, and that—on top of its Jenga tower of existing aspirations—is a tricky task. Gary’s got heart and brains and guts (many, many guts), and, at the risk of seeming immoral, it could still use some cleaning up.

Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus is at the Booth Theatre.

Theater Review: Shakespeare, Riffed On Relentlessly, in Gary