Michael R. Jackson’s heady metamusical A Strange Loop starts strong and goes to lots of strong places. It doesn’t necessarily maintain the dexterity with which it begins, but endings are tough — especially in a story that’s been consciously fashioned around and out of cycles. The show is a centripetal swirl of references and reflections, and its title is no exception to its anxious multivalency. “Strange Loop” is a song by Liz Phair; a cognitive-science term coined by Douglas Hofstadter to describe the slippery, reflexive nature of self; and an allusion to W.E.B. Du Bois’s description, in The Souls of Black Folk, of the “double consciousness” of living while black. “It is a peculiar sensation,” Du Bois wrote, “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Jackson’s triumph with A Strange Loop is that by diving into the excruciatingly personal, he finds the broadly human. His play is specifically about “what it’s like to … travel the world in a fat, black queer body,” and it’s about ambition, alienation, loneliness, and the creative ego. It’s about what it’s like to travel the world inside any body with a brain and a heart that are constantly unsatisfied, constantly reaching, self-sabotaging, and self-rebuilding.
Jackson — who writes in the show’s program about the self-hatred he’s grappled with as a black gay man, and about the trickiness of sharing a name with a very famous person, a name that “strips me of an identity that is solely my own” — has described A Strange Loop as “Company meets Passing Strange.” (I’d say, with a healthy dash of something like this way-too-real video thrown in.) The show is about Usher (Larry Owens), a black gay man who shares a name with a very famous person and who’s trying to write a musical … about a black gay man who’s trying to write a musical. To add layers to layers, Usher’s name is also his day job — as a young writer in New York, he makes money by telling people to return to their seats at The Lion King — and the play he finds himself in is an agitated chronicle of its own creation. “No one cares about a writer who is struggling to write,” sings Antwayn Hopper, one of the show’s six excellent, quick-shifting ensemble members who all represent Usher’s self-torturing thoughts. The company sings on brightly: “They’ll say it’s way too repetitious / And so overly ambitious / Which of course makes them suspicious / That you think you’re fucking white!”
If the intentional, vertiginous solipsism of Jackson’s project sometimes feels a bit young, that makes sense: A Strange Loop began as a monologue that he wrote between his B.F.A. and M.F.A. stints at NYU. And the show is repetitious at times, but its ambition is exhilarating and, most important, it’s wickedly funny right up until it’s very much not. The show’s longest, most hilarious gag — which builds to an eventual climax that busts open Arnulfo Maldonado’s deceptively simple set and pushes the audience straight through laughter into ugly heartbreak — is built around the pressure that Usher feels from his devout Detroit mother to write her a gospel play. “Like Tyler Perry!” says John-Andrew Morrison rapturously, surrounded by the ensemble, all wearing purple robes and sharing the voice of Usher’s mom. “’Cause Tyler Perry writes real life. Tyler Perry knows how to bring everything together wit all the stories? And all the singing? And all the different people talking? And Tyler Perry don’t never forget to bring in the spirit’ch’alities. ’Cause Tyler Perry loves his mama. And the Lord!”
The character of Usher’s mother ultimately settles in Morrison during the play’s long, excitingly heightened climax, but throughout the show, the ensemble is a nimble riot as they toss voices and personas among each other like jugglers. James Jackson Jr. is wonderful both as Usher’s nasty, slow-sashaying “daily self-loathing” and as an over-the-top doctor who warns the lonely protagonist that he “absolutely must be getting sex several times a week.” John-Michael Lyles leaps from portraying Usher’s very straight, very “Bitch, I lay up in bed wit who I want” older brother to flawlessly executing Raja Feather Kelly’s upbeat, allusive choreography in a crop top, with extra sparkle. Jason Veasey effectively balances hetero charisma and lurking menace in roles including a stranger on the train and Usher’s father — who, at one point, leaves a terse message for his playwriting son with a laugh-out-loud bit of parental advice from “Googles dot com”: “I don’t know if you know who Scott Rudin is …” L Morgan Lee brings grace and solidity to several of the play’s kindlier parts, from the hardworking anthropomorphized neuron that supervises Usher’s “sexual ambivalence” to an elderly Broadway fan from Florida who offers our hero some encouragement between acts at The Lion King.
Director Stephen Brackett, who brought speed-of-Twitter energy to Be More Chill, keeps Jackon’s musical buzzing along with similar dynamism, threading the needle between the show’s brainy hyperactivity and its shame and hurt. For the most part, Brackett and the ensemble shepherd us through moments where A Strange Loop might stall or stutter: A sequence in which Usher’s black ancestors — from James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston to Harriet Tubman and Whitney Huston — crawl out of their graves to take Usher to task for disdaining Tyler Perry and refusing to write his mother’s gospel musical is so gloriously funny that we are, at least in the moment, able to let go of the idea that James Baldwin would have approved of Perry as an art-and-culture-maker. (I’m inclined to a hearty hell no on that front, but let that pass.) And as Usher himself, Owens is nightly performing a remarkable feat: For 105 minutes, he doesn’t leave the stage, he sings his insides out, and he never tries to charm us. The ensemble has that covered — Usher is an artist in New York City, after all. He’s surrounded by cute, by pretty, by beautiful and aspiring and sexy and successful. And he’s an overweight, angry, lonely, smart, desperate, self-destructive mess. Owens’s brave, raw performance is a bracing clapback at a city, a culture, and a profession obsessed with image and rife with hypocrisy.
But of course, that’s also just … humans. If A Strange Loop sometimes feels like an early play — like a writer trying to muscle through the 20s-dominating obsession with self so that he can break out and into the rest of the world and the rest of his work and life — it’s also rich with clever comedy and eviscerating honesty. It’s specific and sweeping, harsh and generous, and it converts the shaming, narrow but all-encompassing religion, the bad faith of Usher’s childhood into the good faith of art. It defines and adheres to its own credo, as expressed by Lee’s optimistic Florida retiree: “Live your life and tell your story in exactly the same way: truthfully and without fear.”
A Strange Loop is at Playwrights Horizons, where it’s produced in association with Page 73, through July 7.