According to Douglas Carter Beane’s verse comedy Fairycakes, magic functions just like the gig economy. There’s no time off, no guarantee of more magic in the future, and your securely employed mom and dad don’t take your work seriously. In Beane’s world, every fairy — including the Bad one, the Blue one, and Tinkerbell — are actually members of one overburdened family. These precariat pixies multitask: Moth (Jackie Hoffman) from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream also oversees Neverland; her sister Mustardseed (Ann Harada) is on lost-tooth duty and knows Sleeping Beauty. It doesn’t help that their fairy-boomer parents Titania (Julie Halston) and Oberon (Arnie Burton) keep having marital issues, and that in the chaos, the fairies confuse their assignments. It’s a sharp farcical setup, and Beane — also directing — has assembled various Off Broadway treasures to gin up the comedy. But even though everyone is whacking gamely away at Beane’s conceit, nothing quite hammers his whimsy into charm.
There are a few reasons for the show’s weird aridity. First, there’s a sourness at the heart of Beane’s confection. Most of the nutty plot involves couples’ splitting and getting back together, sometimes in new, queerer configurations. It’s sweet when the pirate Dirk Dead-Eye (Arnie Burton) falls head-over-eye-patch for Geppetto (Mo Rocca), or Kuhoo Verma’s gorgeous Cinderella looks at her own reflection and understandably chooses herself. But it’s less adorable elsewhere — the play’s key relationship, for instance, is skunked. Oberon’s main lieutenant, Puck (Chris Myers), is a pest; he calls Peaseblossom (Kristolyn Lloyd) “Fairycakes” whenever he’s bugging her for a date. He nags and whines, and eventually throws a magic-destroying tantrum over her rejection. She hates the nickname, and it’s obvious from the dead air between Myers and Lloyd that there’s no spark to light. But in Beane’s icky-sticky resolution, Peaseblossom’s mother Titania berates her into “accepting” that she loves both the name and him. Shazam! Magic is restored because a woman stops saying no to a bad Puck.
The harder thing to bear, though, is Beane’s decision to write the thing in verse. Thudding rhyming couplets that go on for nearly two and a half hours operate like a saw against your nerves, a saw that has exactly 15 syllabic teeth. Some members of the cast can outface the language — Hoffman improvises like a champ; Jason Tam’s Cupid drawls his way through lines as though he’s too stoned to remember them; Burton, with his long experience in Shakespeare, actually makes the poetry sound like speech. It’s telling, though, that the show’s best moment comes when Beane deliberately breaks it. In the second act, Puck disrupts fairyland’s magic, and poetry deserts all the characters at once. Watching Z Infante’s Sleeping Beauty try to work out, on the fly, how unmetered language works has immediate pleasures. Prose! You never loved it so much.
Beane adores the farce form; he clearly cares about Shakespeare (there’s a cute bit when Julie Halston whips out a copy of Midsummer’s to give us a little lecture). So it’s odd to see such a gifted comedian brought low, his strengths turned against him. Perhaps the show needs a director with a more practiced, lighter touch. Fairycakes is part tribute to Charles Ludlam’s Theater of the Ridiculous, part collegiate goof-around entertainment — and those categories both need an it-takes-a-village, anarchic excitement to work. Here, though, the cast seems a little lost and distanced from one another, swimming in Gregory Gale’s gorgeous costumes, the one truly lavish and well-considered element onstage. Only during the curtain call, when everyone dances as an ensemble, nearly braining each other with their high kicks, do we get a glimpse of the all-chums-together sort of production that might have been.
In fact, the show that Beane might have meant to make was going on last week at Joe’s Pub. In a weeklong engagement, Taylor Mac and friends tried out some new songs for a show titled (still tentatively) Sugar in the Tank: New Songs About Queer People. Mac wore a rainbow wig that waved Phyllis Diller–ishly in the breeze, and the show on Saturday started with a costume malfunction, which couldn’t have mattered less. There was virtuosity onstage, but everyone wore it easily, jamming for the love of it, occasionally chatting about choreography as it happened. The show was all very cavalier, which made every song seem somehow wilder. Mac kept assuring us that there wouldn’t be transitions (“There’s nothing more queer than an awkward silence”) but then would chat anyway, tutting at us for wanting to hear the lyrics in songs about Larry Kramer and Mother Flawless Sabrina. “I know what you’re thinking,” Mac drawled. “I paid a lot of money for a work in progress. But it’s still going to be better than whatever else you’re going to.” And shazam! It really was.
Fairycakes is at the Greenwich House Theater through January 2.
Sugar in the Tank was at Joe’s Pub from October 19 through 23.