theater review

Rachel Bloom Sets Avoidance to Song in Death, Let Me Do My Show

Photo: Emilio Madrid

Rachel Bloom would rather be singing about trees that smell like semen. She enters the stage in a glittery silver pantsuit, basketball in hand, backed by the Space Jam theme, and announces that she’s here tonight to perform the one-woman comedy show she wrote in 2019. She gets in one run about the pandemic, built out of the fact that she got pregnant in that year, and if you do the math, that means she gave birth in late March 2020 — “… No story there,” she says — but insists that since things are all back to normal-ish, she’d like to return to her niche of hyperspecific, gross-out musical-theater pastiche. She pulls out a parasol and an accent fit for a regional production of A Little Night Music, and we’re off on a tale about meeting your sweetheart under the cum tree.

If you would like the story to remain unspoiled, stop reading here. But as with much of Bloom’s show, the turn the night is about to take is literally in bright lights on the marquee: Before she can get to her next number, about a bush that smells like … a bush, Death heckles her from the audience. He’s got a past with Bloom, and he’s mad that she’s ignoring him. Death, she can’t help pointing out, bears a striking resemblance to David Hull, the “moderately successful actor who seems stuck between leading man and character roles” (her words!) and who played White Josh on Bloom’s TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. She might want to get on with her bits about arboreal aromas, but he demands that she reckon with something more serious. After Bloom’s daughter was born in Los Angeles in March 2020, she spent a week in neonatal intensive care. Nearly concurrently in New York, Bloom’s songwriting partner Adam Schlesinger was put on a ventilator and then died of COVID complications. Death’s challenge to Bloom — and implicitly her own challenge to herself — is to see if her comedy can stretch to wrap itself around that loss.

On a technical level, Bloom and her director, Seth Barrish, are more than up to the task of finding the funny in the bleakest moments. Sitting with her daughter surrounded by jaundiced infants under sunlamps in the NICU, she imagines they’re all tanning at a baby wellness retreat — “It also feels like a high-end spa, because everyone comes out looking so young.” She describes shucking off her clothes on her front lawn to keep germs out of the house after visiting her daughter in the hospital at the same time as her neighbors were outside banging pots and pans to celebrate health-care workers. In her comedy and songwriting, Bloom favors a traditionally all-bolts-tightened script, everything structured with purpose, no potential punchline or callback opportunity missed. Rest assured that even the basketball she casually chucks into the audience after she enters will be bouncing back into view.

That approach works especially well when Bloom gets specific in her parodies or sets the expectations of a genre against knottier realities, as she often did in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a show that felt like someone screaming from inside the maze of a musical romantic comedy. In Death, Let Me Do My Show, Bloom’s songs tend to take one idea for a verse (say, the cutesy internet notion that you’ll meet your pets again at the rainbow bridge), develop it into the chorus (what if those pets are mad at you?), and then mutate it into absurdity through the next few verses so that by the time she hits a bridge, you’re watching her belt out a song in front of a horrific mural of dead pets. When Bloom is sure in her aim, as with the dead-pet song, the nicheness of it all pays off incredibly well. At one point, Death stops the show with a solo that’s an unsettlingly good imitation of Dear Evan Hansen, down to that musical’s run-on-sentence lyrics and scrolling-social-media-feed visual design, the kind of thing that kills in an audience full of musical-theater nerds like herself. Before Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, after all, she was making videos about how hard it is to get people in L.A. to watch the Tonys with you.

But in a show about the vast emptiness of grief, Bloom’s airtight precision can only get her so far, and the result is like watching someone trying to stuff a black hole into a Tupperware jar. Bloom doesn’t want her audience to sit in discomfort for too long, and she tends to retreat from the rawest moments into either platitudes or the realm of the comfortably grotesque. She builds one “Monster Mash”–style gothic number in the back half of the show around the notion that the existence of ghosts, scary as they may be, is more comforting than the prospect of no afterlife at all. That’s a disconcerting notion, and where she could run with it, Bloom gets caught up in intensifying the ghoulishness — describing increasingly absurd specters instead of amplifying the existential horror.

Bloom’s tendency toward tidiness keeps the show sprightly and enjoyable but not gutting. That may be her intent: In an interview with the Times, Bloom pointed out that she didn’t want to include “anything that I’m not ready to stand behind 100 percent or any emotion that isn’t processed” in the piece. The neatness of it all is impressive but safe. She comments on her own premises to the point of deflating them. Death, heckling her character from the audience, quips that it really seems like she’s not improvising; it’s an obvious wink that keeps the emotional core of the conceit at arm’s distance. She adds a caveat to her story by emphasizing how relatively minor her experience with mortality was compared to what so many people have experienced. Sure, but you’d rather that she own the significance of her loss than try to duck it.

In her own defense — both to that heckler Death and to critiques like this one — Bloom points out that she’s following all the conventions of a traditional confessional one-woman show here: “I even switched from a hand mic to a lav mic.” Her aside puts Death, Let Me Do My Show in the company of meta-theatrical pieces like Kate Berlant’s Kate and Liz Kingman’s One Woman Show that are themselves about the expectation that a woman performing alone onstage is supposed to deliver you a breakdown. (There is also a newish tradition of onstage confession performed by people of any gender, especially of the Mike Birbiglia comedy-plus-storytelling variety; Barrish, Bloom’s director, frequently works with him too.) In Kate, Berlant wound herself up to reveal a big secret that wasn’t a secret at all, only that her character had an iron deficiency. In One Woman Show, Kingsman zoomed out and made the industry the butt of the joke, with a character who’s putting on a show about trauma only because she thinks she can sell it to TV executives. In contrast to those two performers, Bloom really does have trauma to unpack, but she shares a similar defiant sense that she would prefer to discuss what she wants on her own terms. It’s a clever move, in that framing, to make Death a heckling audience member, because he’s coming into the show with the same base demands as the rest of us: We’re here to see live theater, so bleed for us a little.

Seen that way, resisting Death’s demands is also about resisting letting the trauma plot overtake your own comedic style just for the sake of dramatic heft. On the one hand, I did side with Death in that, though it may be cruel to the performer, for real catharsis to arrive you want something blunter and more exposed than this. On the other hand, Bloom is so good in her default mode, with a glint in her eye and dozens of curse words in her mouth, that she wins you over to her helter-skelter view of the world. She wins Death himself over too, or at least manages to get him to sing along with her about the cum trees.

Death, Let Me Do My Show is at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.

Rachel Bloom, Avoidant in Song, in Death, Let Me Do My Show