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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
A STRANGE LOOP
at Playwrights Horizons

COMPLEX IDENTITY
By JEREMY GERARD

  James Jackson, Jr., Larry Owens, L. Morgan Lee and Antwayn Hopper/ Ph: Joan Marcus

His name is Usher, and in his introductory remarks to the audience, he describes himself as “a young overweight-to-obese homosexual and/or gay and/or queer, cisgender male, able-bodied university-and-graduate-school-educated, musical theater writing, Disney Ushering, broke-ass middle-class far-left-leaning black-identified and classified American descendant of slaves full of self-conscious femme energy and who thinks he’s probably a vers bottom but not totally certain of that obsessing over the latest draft of his self-referential musical…”

I must admit that I had to look up “vers bottom” (after all, Cole Porter didn’t write “and if I’m the vers bottom/you’re the top”). Nevertheless, the self-deprecating, hyper-verbal description of the author-hero of A Strange Loop struck me as overly familiar and put me on my guard. That’s a very long how-do-you-do, when “Call me Ishmael” or some variation would suffice.

Usher, played with insouciant charm by Larry Owens, quickly annihilated my defenses as Michael R. Jackson’s musical instantly gathered steam and didn’t let up for any of its 100 minutes. Usher goes on to explain that he “wants to show what it’s like to live up here and travel the world in a fat, black queer body,” and that in this task he will be abetted – or thwarted, as the case may be – by his six “Thoughts”: #1 (L. Morgan Lee), “the supervisor of your sexual ambivalence”; #2 (James Jackson, Jr.), “your daily self-loathing”; #3 (John-Michael Lyles), the self-protective Jiminy Cricket on his metaphorical shoulder; #4 (John-Andrew Morrison), “your mother calling!”; #5 (Jason Veasey), “I’m with Corporate Niggatry!”; and #6 (Antwayn Hopper), “your Financial Faggotry.”

This Mobius strip of a tale is of a young black composer/lyricist named Usher who’s struggling to write a musical about a struggling young black composer named Usher who’s struggling … you get the idea. The forces working on the ur-Usher are economic (he can’t pay the rent), familial (someone touched someone on the vagina at last summer’s family reunion, plus everyone wants to know whether he’s going to be the next Tyler Perry, or at least Lin-Manuel Miranda), sexual (“Laid back, nice guy here, no agenda, no drama,” Jiminy C. observes as Usher ventures into the backroom bar scene. “Just checking things out and maybe looking for a gym buddy LOL”) and racial (all he really, really wants to do is free his Inner White Girl and write like Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos or Liz Phair).

Jackson conjures some magic here, for while A Strange Loop lands as a wholly original work from a gifted composer/lyricist, he wears his influences like medals of honor – even as he protests, in printed remarks, that such comparisons strip him of his identity. The repeated, staccato musical phrases and high-speed cataloguing lyrics suggest Sondheim by way of William Finn. His parody of Perry is itself worth the price of admission. It echoes George C. Wolfe’s seminal, affectionate send-up of black culture, The Colored Museum. The sentimentalism owes something to Harvey Fierstein, as in an X-rated backroom encounter that ends on a sad note that resonates throughout the rest of the show.

And yet A Strange Loop is defiantly its own work. Notwithstanding its many attempts to offend, it remains puppyishly demanding of our affection. Credit Stephen Brackett for staging it with respect for its whimsy as well as its angst, and Raja Feather Kelly for suffusing it with an almost poetic terpsichorean energy. This joint production from Playwrights Horizons and Page 73 Productions also boasts a deceptively simple set (Arnulfo Maldonado) of six lighted frames that can be variously configured, like a farce minus the slamming doors, pinpoint lighting (Jen Schriever) and character-perfect costumes (Montana Levi Blanco). Jackson all but dares you find fault with his talent to amuse, which is irresistible.

 


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